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Computing GCSE continues to rise in popularity, but grades drop

The number of girls taking computing at GCSE level has more than doubled with more students taking the subject than ever before, but grades are dropping

Girls sitting their computing GCSE exams have more than doubled since 2015, with 12,500 taking the subject, compared with 5,600 in 2015.

Overall, the popularity of the subject, which was announced in 2014, has risen by 76% from 35,000 in 2015 to 62,000 students sitting the exam.

While computing is increasing in popularity, the ICT GSCE – which is more focused on day to day use of technology – is less popular, with the number of students sitting the exam dropping by 25%.

The trend is similar to that found in last week’s A-level results, which showed an increase in computing, but a drop in ICT. 

Overall though, students taking science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects have seen a slight increase compared with 2015.  

The rise in popularity for subjects such as maths, engineering and computing is a positive move to bridge the the skills gap the UK technology sector is currently facing.

A report by the Science and Technology Committee published in June 2016, shows that the digital skills gap costs the UK economy £63bn a year and companies are struggling to recruit digital specialists.

Neil Carberry, director for people and skills policy at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said the rise in students studying “separate sciences and computing will be warmly welcomed by business across the country” as a step in addressing the skills shortage.

“To stand toe to toe with our international competitors, we need to make sure these young people have engaging and stretching options to continue their studies in these fields,” he said.

Tech Partnership CEO Karen Price said it’s encouraging to see a growth in the uptake of computing, as well as “some real progress in the proportion of girls”.

“Demand for digital specialists continues to grow, and employers need 138,000 people a year to enter the workforce in such roles. We must do even more to make the curriculum in schools attractive to girls and boys, and inspire them about the huge variety of digital careers available,” she said.

Drop in computing grades 

However, the figures released by the Joint Council for Qualifications showed that the number of students getting A*-C in their computing exams has dropped from 65% last year to 60% this year. Girls are outperforming boys, with 24% achieving A or A*, compared with 20% of boys.

There is also a slight drop in students getting A*-C in their ICT GSCEs, but again girls are performing better than boys, with 26% achieving A or A*, compared to 17% of boys.

Although the number of students taking Stem subjects have increased, science and technology subjects have seen the largest drop in students achieving A or A* since 2011.

Ashok Vaswani, chief executive of Barclays UK, said it’s great to see that ICT and computing are increasingly popular subjects, but he is concerned that the number of people achieving an A-A* grade is continuing to fall.

Barclays’ Digital Development Index shows that the UK ranks joint second for the quality of its digital skills curriculum in compulsory education, but is at the bottom of the list for the number of computing students in tertiary education.  

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“This has an impact on individuals’ abilities to continue building their skills after leaving school and limits the good work being done in compulsory education,” Vaswani said.

“It is vital that we build on the efforts made at a secondary education level to encourage the business leaders of tomorrow to continue to develop their digital skills into higher education and their working lives.”

However, according to Kakul Srivastava, vice-president of product management at GitHub, it’s not all doom and gloom.

She said on the surface, the drop in grades “doesn’t bode well for the tech industry, and could increase concerns about the ‘digital skills gap’ worsening in the future and hindering industry growth”.

“However, GCSE results aren’t the only indicator of future tech success. They don’t take into account the wealth of talented self-taught individuals who, despite the lack of a formal qualification, have made an invaluable contribution to the sector,” she said.

“To harness digital skills in the future, the tech industry should avoid placing too much emphasis on formal qualifications, and look instead to the rich talent pools that exist.”

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