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GCSE computing rises in popularity, but fears remain over skills gap

The number of both male and female students who chose to take a computing GCSE increased in 2017

The number of students taking GCSE-level computing rose this year, with an increase in both male and female students choosing the subject – but there are fears in the industry that the rise is not enough.

The number of male students who opted for the computing GCSE rose from 49,926 in 2016 to 53,519 this year, while the number of girls taking the subject rose from 12,528 last year to 13,232 in 2017.

Overall, 66,751 students took the subject for GCSE in 2017 – 4,297 more than in the previous year.

But Bill Mitchell, director of education at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, said the rise is not significant enough to fuel the tech talent pipeline at the required rate.

“This is starting to look worrying and shows signs that we are going to be very far short of the numbers needed for our nation to remain a leader of digital technology in the long term,” he said. “It is expected that 90% of all future jobs will require digital skills and it is estimated that the UK will need more than 1.2 million new technical and digitally skilled people by 2022 to satisfy future skills needs. Computer science GCSE is one of the key pathways that young people can take.”

Female students outperformed male students in the subject, with 65.7% gaining a C grade or above, an increase on 2016, and 7.7% gaining an A* grade.

Despite efforts to encourage more girls into the technology industry, a number of factors, such as negative stereotypes and a lack of role models, still deter girls from taking science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem)-based subjects, and the number of girls pursuing such careers is barely increasing year on year.

Emma McGuigan, group technology officer – communications, media and technology at Accenture, said: “The news that 80% of this year’s GCSE computing students and 90% of GCSE engineering students are boys is a stark reflection of the challenge the tech industry faces when it comes to tackling the skills gap and fostering a diverse workforce that drives innovation. The tech industry needs to ignite the interest of a wider demographic to ensure the UK is equipped to compete in the digital economy, and we all have a role to play here – business, government, educators and parents.”

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Male students’ results in GCSE computing were on a par with last year, with 59.6% gaining a C grade or above, and 5.3% achieving an A* grade.

Computing was introduced to the curriculum in 2014 as a way of developing the skills children might need for a digital future, and there has since been talk that ICT qualifications will be phased out.

Although more students still take ICT than computing, the number of students taking ICT GCSEs has fallen – from 84,120 in 2016 to 73,099 this year.

The number of male students taking GCSE ICT dropped by 5,359 to 44,634, and the number of female students taking the subject fell from 34,127 in 2016 to 28,465 this year.

Overall grades for the subject also slipped, with 64% of male students gaining a C or higher, and 3% claiming an A*. Female students performed better than male students, but still did not match the previous year – 71.6% of female students got a C or higher, and 5.7% gained an A* – down from 6.3% last year.

Many students found it hard to interpret their grades for certain subjects this year because a new grading system has been implemented throughout the UK for GCSEs. The grade structure for some subjects, previously A to G, has been changed to 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest.

But despite yearly improvements in GCSE and A-level grades, many in the technology industry are concerned that students are leaving education without the skills they need to fill vacant tech and digital roles.

Joe Nash, student programme manager for GitHub, said: “Great results or not, ICT skills are crucial for modern life. Yes, good GCSE grades can secure a college placement, but computer skills are an essential requirement for almost all jobs, and most people neglect them after school.”

Many believe collaboration between education providers, the tech industry and government is the only way to tackle the future skills gap. .........................................................................................................

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