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The number of students who have entered themselves to take the 2017 GCSE computing exam has increased by 9% year-on-year.
Figures from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) show that the number of year 10 and 11 students taking the computing GCSE has risen from 63,650 in 2016 to 69,350 in 2017.
But this increase is smaller than the one seen between 2015 and 2016. Although Ofqual puts this slow uptake down to the subject being “new and growing”, Guita Blake, senior vice-president and head of Europe at IT consultancy Mindtree, said more needs to be done to encourage young people to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, if only to ensure they gain the skills needed to take part in a digital future.
“In the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, these statistics highlight the need for a significantly greater commitment to the ‘Stem agenda’ in the UK. Inspiring the next generation of computer experts is critical for the future of the IT industry and for the UK economy,” she said.
The number of people choosing to take the ICT GCSE has dropped from 74,750 in 2016 to 61,500 in 2017, and eventually the government plans to scrap ICT qualifications altogether.
In a bid to prepare young people for jobs in the future – it is estimated that a majority of young people will end up with jobs that do not yet exist – the government created the computing curriculum in 2014, which requires children from the age of five to start learning concepts such as computational thinking.
This will eventually lead to the end of ICT being taught in schools, with the hopes that the need for qualifications such as this will be filled by computer science qualifications.
But many argue that by scrapping the ICT GCSE and A-Level, those looking to develop more technical skills may find themselves left behind.
There have been complaints that the new computing curriculum does not allow students to develop the skills needed for more specialised skills needed in the current job market.
Tim Stitt, the head of scientific computing at the Earlham Institute, said the structure of the current way children are taught about coding means that by the time they reach higher education and try to branch into more complex subjects, such as supercomputing, it is more difficult for them to learn.
This is also a problem in the cyber security space. Adrian Davis, managing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa at (ISC)² - which predicted that there will be a deficit of 1.8 million cyber security workers by 2022 – said the problem lies in the industry’s negative stereotyping, the lack of knowledge parents and teachers have about possible technology roles and the industry’s lack of involvement in trying to solve these problems.
“IT – and information security – need to be more proactive in marketing and selling themselves, the careers on offer, and clearer in describing who and what the industry needs. The computing science GCSE should be seen and sold as the first step in a successful and well-paid career,” said Davis.
This trend for increasing entry to computing qualifications continues into A Level, which showed an increase of almost a third from 5,750 in 2016 to 7,700 in 2017.
Meanwhile, ICT dropped from 10,050 in 2016 to 8,000 in 2017, a significant drop Ofqual chalks up to 2017 being the last year students can choose to take this A Level.
Bill Mitchell, director of education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, expressed concern over the slow uptake of computing qualifications and stated more support should be offered to schools to ensure they are able to provide good quality technical GCSE qualifications.
“We must ensure that schools are properly equipped to provide the best possible options for students at GCSE and that includes Computer Science. Our view is that will only happen where we make sure teachers are getting the right professional development to make GCSE Computer Science a success,” he said.
Computing is ‘a drop in the ocean’
Many claim that a lack of role models is one of the reasons children, especially girls, do not pursue careers in Stem subjects, and teachers are not savvy of what Stem roles entail, and do not always encourage children into these careers.
Meanwhile, the skills gap widens and it has been predicted that by 2020 there will be 756,000 unfilled digital jobs in Europe.
Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, said technology companies commonly complain there is a lack of skilled candidates to fill roles, and that more emphasis is needed on initiatives focused around quickly creating skilled workers.
“The news that the number of students studying GCSE computing has increased is encouraging news but more needs to be done. Digital skills initiatives need to be scaled dramatically and digital skills colleges, such as Ada College, need to be replicated nationwide,” he said.
“This is a drop in the ocean and government and the private sector need to take drastic action now to equip the UK with the workforce its tech sector requires.”
Due to government reforms on AS and A Level subjects, all AS Level entries showed a decline, although the further maths AS Level stayed relatively stable – entries for the computing AS level dropped from 11,800 in 2016 to 6,150 in 2017 and ICT AS Level entries dropped from 15,300 in 2016 to 8,700 in 2017.