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Number of girls taking A-level computing still fewer than 3,000

Gender split in A-level computing has been on the rise, but the growth in girls taking the subject is moving at a snail’s pace

The number of girls who sat A-level computing across the UK this year was still fewer than 3,000, despite the number gradually climbing each year.

While the number of girls choosing to take A-level computing rose by 17.6% when compared with last year – this still meant only 2,765 of 2023’s candidates were female.

This year the total number of students choosing to take A-level computing across the UK rose, from 15,693 in 2022 to 18,306 this summer – one of the largest jumps in candidates sitting a subject at a 16.7% rise year on year – 15,541 of which were boys.

When looking at the past five years of results, the number of girls taking A-level computing in the UK has risen slightly each year, from 1,475 in 2019; 1,797 in 2020; 2,031 in 2021; 2,352 in 2022; and 2,765 in 2023. But progress is still incredibly slow, and many girls are still choosing not to continue to pursue these subjects into higher education.

Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president EMEA for Skillsoft, said the increase should not be a “signal to become complacent”, especially as the number of A-level candidates does not always translate to university level, calling upon a joint effort from schools, businesses and the government to help tackle the issue.  

She said: “Science, technology, engineering and maths [STEM] subjects remain very male-dominated, putting off over a quarter of female students. Old-fashioned biases can still creep in and influence young girls’ decisions, not just in selecting A-level subjects, but when pursuing higher education or looking to join the career ladder.

“We still have a long way to go before those are fully behind us, and need to make sure STEM is a place girls feel welcome and inspired. The government, schools and businesses need to do far more to encourage girls in these areas..”

Grade attainment for those choosing to sit computing exams dropped when compared to last year, possibly signalling a return to pre-pandemic performance, but girls still performed better than boys.

This year, only 5.3% of students who sat the computing A-level exam achieved at A* grade, a significant drop on 14.5% last year, but a growth on 2019 where 3.4% achieved the same.

When split by gender, 6.3% of female students attained an A* grade at computing A-level this year, compared with 5.1% of boys.

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Less than half of those who sat the exam achieved at least a B grade – only 44.4% of students this year – compared with 2022, where 57.9% of students taking the subject achieved at least a B.

When it comes to a C grade, 65.8% of students who took part in the computing A-level this year received at least a C, a drop from 76.5% last year.

The results table published by the Joint Council of Qualifications this year compared results from years 2019, 2022 and 2023, omitting results from pandemic years 2020 and 2021.

During 2020 and 2021, candidates were assessed through a mixture of data including mock exam results, coursework grades, teacher predictions and centre assessment grades submitted by schools and colleges, without students taking part in an exam assessment.

It was argued that this caused some of the grading to be too lenient, and this year marks the second year in a row grade attainment has dropped for computing.

Results aside, many have pointed out the positives of seeing a rise both in the number of people choosing to take computing at A-level, and the rise in the number of girls taking the subject, though different routes into technology roles, as well as alternatives to A-levels were also highlighted as good options.

Beth Elgood, director of communications at EngineeringUK, said: “With STEM A-levels providing important routes into engineering and tech careers, it’s encouraging today’s results show a substantial 16.7% increase in the uptake of computing A level – the highest increase for any subject.”

But Elgood highlighted a number of other STEM subjects with more disappointing numbers, including a drop in candidates for physics and D&T.

She said: “As a sector that is challenged with acute workforce shortages, it’s important that we closely monitor and strive to increase both the number and diversity of young people studying STEM-related subjects. Today’s results confirm there is still work to be done.”

Before it’s too late

Many believe having access to visible role models will help to encourage more young women to look into a technology career. Hannah Birch, managing director digital at Node4, explained why this needs to happen sooner rather than later.

She said: “In my role as a governor at a school, and as a woman in tech myself, I have done a lot of work speaking to girls about the possibilities of a career in technology. Whilst this is rewarding, it is also frustrating to hear the lack of information that these young women have. I remember speaking with to two girls in their final year of A-level studies who had plans to work in a nursery.

“Not to say that it isn’t a rewarding career, but when I told them about my typical day and they understood better what a career in tech could look like, they were really interested and said that they wished they had made different choices. By that point, they had almost finished their studies and their university places or job offers were secured – ultimately, it was too late for them.

“For me, it was proof that girls are not being guided in the best way about what opportunities are available to them, especially when it comes to a career in technology. It is crucial we start having these conversations with girls earlier on in their education for when they make decisions that set them up for the future.” 

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