A-Levels: just scratching the surface of STEM skills and diversity still an issue

Today’s release of A-Level results confirm an increase in the uptake of STEM subjects, but these qualifications are only scratching the service of the skills needed to enter the technology sector.

Skills such as being able to speak the language of software development, and understanding how applications and solutions are built, will help candidates stand out from the competition – and educators need to get on board.

Collaborative platforms such as GitHub can play a key role in equipping students with the skills they need to pursue a career in the technology sector.

“Make no mistake, securing a great job or university placement can be tough, even for those with great A-level qualifications. However, in the field of technology, career advancement can often be achieved through alternative routes, rather than just grades,” suggests Joe Nash, student program manager at GitHub.

>See also: The STEM skills gap on the road to closing? 

“In this competitive environment, being able to speak the language of software development, and understanding how applications and solutions are built, will help candidates stand out from the competition — showing educators that they are actively engaging with the latest developments in technology.”

“It stands to reason that a career focused on tech would benefit from being nurtured on collaborative, connected platforms — where developers can come together to share best practices and ideas. These platforms also offer a wealth of information and resources for teachers and students alike, based on popular coding devices such as the Raspberry Pi. This way of inclusive working is just one of the reasons why there is a wealth of talented self-taught individuals who, despite the lack of a formal qualification, have made their mark on the sector.”

Cyber security

How do today’s A-Level results tie into digital/cybersecurity skills? Some, like Greg Day, VP and regional chief security officer EMEA at Palo Alto Networks, would argue that not enough is being done to encourage student to pursue a career in this industry. He urges students to keep their minds open to a career in cyber security.

“Cyber security is one of the most dynamic industries out there, and the range of job roles and career opportunities within the field is truly fantastic. The industry needs to think outside the box when it comes to finding talent, which means not looking at just those with traditional computer science degrees to be leading the industry in the coming decades. When you look at the skills shortage within the industry, coupled with the way in which cybersecurity threats continue to evolve, bringing the right people into this field is more important than ever. Popular culture, like the TV show Mr Robot, might be inspiring young people to think of a career in cybersecurity as exciting and enthralling, but many may feel a non-techie A-Level or degree choice means a career in helping to protect and secure data, which is vital to our society and economy, could be closed to them.”

>See also: IT-related A-levels fall to 10-year low

“But, that’s absolutely not the case, and I would urge all students to keep an open mind to opportunities in our fast-paced and growing industry, because we need people with more than just very specific technology skills. The economy faces a cybersecurity skills shortage, at a time when cybersecurity is increasingly relevant to every aspect of a business.”

“The future cyber security leaders could be those who are about to embark on degrees ranging from philosophy to chemistry. Degrees which are about solving problems using creativity thinking, team management and communication reflect what cybersecurity is all about. It’s not just about training more people, but also training people to approach problems differently and use creativity and logic to prioritise prevention of attacks rather than reactive damage limitation. Graduates with the ability to think differently will be more efficient in the industry, and that’s how we will be able to plug the skills gap.”

“While it’s always encouraging to see more people apply for traditional routes into our industry, it’s never too late for those with potential to develop the skills they need to move over. Cyber security is more than just a job. It’s an exciting, rewarding and varied career with many options to get into it.”

With allocated university places down from last year’s figures, young people are increasingly looking for non-traditional routes into industries such as IT.

Indeed, Kaspersky Lab suggests that today’s A level results represent a growing trend away from traditional qualifications and this should be no different in IT and cybersecurity.

The cyber security industry is suffering from a significant skills gap. Kaspersky Lab research revealed that while one in four (27%) have considered a career in cyber security, with many (47%) regarding it as a good use of their talent, many others admit an inclination to engage in more questionable activity. Only half (50%) of under-25s would actually join the fight against cybercrime; a significant number would use their skills for fun (17 per cent), secretive activities (16%), and financial gain (11%) instead.

STEM subjects on the rise

As mentioned, today’s A-Level results show an increase in the uptake of STEM subjects.

Charles Senabulya, VP and country manager of SAS UKI comments: “The uptake in STEM grades demonstrates that students are aware of the potential these skills will have in securing a career in our data-driven economy. Today, we must capture this enthusiasm and build a solid foundation for the future in areas of analytics, business intelligence and data management to ensure the UK can compete on the global stage.”

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“The arrival of artificial intelligence, robotics and smart technologies will help automate previously manual tasks and drive a change in tomorrow’s job roles. British businesses are looking for ways to action insight from captured data now more than ever. Why? To give them a competitive advantage in our digital-first society. And it will be those students with a solid understanding of STEM who will help unlock this edge.”

“For students entering the workforce either now or after they have completed their university education, job titles like ‘data strategist’ and ‘data scientist’ will be commonplace. These are real-world opportunities available to today’s students. In fact, our research shows that big data and the internet of things could add £322 billion to the UK economy by 2020, and there is a strong demand for those skilled to work in these fields.”

“To get there, we need to make a concerted effort to focus our support on young people in these subjects throughout schools and colleges, and encourage them to broaden their knowledge at university. Only then will we be on the path to creating a data-driven culture that ensures the UK remains at the forefront of innovation in the years to come.”


The issue of diversity within the technology is well reported, and a potential solution to this is getting girls more involved with STEM subjects at school.

However, a worrying statistic from A-level data has emerged – only 9.8% of those completing a computing course were girls.

“Today’s announcement that nearly 7,600 students in England took A-level computing means it’s not going to be party time in the IT world for a long time to come,” said Bill Mitchell, director of education at the IT Chartered Institute, BCS. This is well short of the 40,000 level that “we should be seeing”, Mitchell said.

“At less than 10%, the numbers of girls taking computing A-level are seriously low.”

“We know that this a problem starting at primary school and it’s something that we need to address at all levels throughout education.

“As a society, we need to make sure that our young women are leaving education with the digital skills they need to secure a worthwhile job, an apprenticeship or go on to further study.”


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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...