Number of students taking up computing classes a major concern

The importance of computing education in schools has been thrust into political and educational agendas. However, figures from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) have shown only a small rise in students taking up the new computer science GCSE, despite the growing importance placed on developing these skills by school boards across the country.

This has got experts, like those at the British Computing Society (BCS), concerned. It has warned that the number of students taking up a qualification in computing could halve by 2020. This would simply be a disaster for the future UK economy, according to the professional IT body.

>See also: Solving the STEM conundrum: how to bridge the skills shortage

The old ICT course was described by critics as teaching little more than using Microsoft Office is being scrapped. However, Ofqual figures show 58,600 students are still taking the ICT exam, with the overall number getting a GCSE computing qualification falling slightly. The British Computing Society says that when the ICT exam is eventually scrapped, the new computer science exam will fail to fill the gap.

On top of this, there is concern that teachers are not being given enough support for the new curriculum. Drew Buddie – head of computing at a school near London – also feels that the new course will further disinterest students when they pick their GCSE: “it is clear that many 14-to-17-year-old students, particularly girls, are not attracted to such a specific and narrow course.”

“The current GCSE in computer science has replaced the opportunities for creativity that existed in ICT with set programming tasks that have very few solutions,” he adds.

“If we don’t act now,” said Bill Mitchell from the BCS, “by 2020 we are likely to see the number of students studying computing at GCSE halve, when it should be doubling. If that happens, it will be a disaster for our children, and the future of the nation.”

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There is also another issue that has much maligned the IT and technology industry. Too few girls are choosing the computer science exam – in 2016 they made up just 20% of entrants, while the figure for ICT has been around 40%.

Professor Rose Luckin said: “Computer science is seen as more ‘techie’ and it is still dominated by men,” explains the expert from University College London’s Knowledge Lab, who has been researching and writing about the teaching of technology for 20 years…Many girls believe computer science and coding is ‘for boys’ and they do not see desirable career options that appeal to them.”

This is the same problem that has plagued the tech industry for decades. Girls at school level – in general – are simply not interested in taking up STEM subjects. There is an inherent image problem surrounding these subjects and the types of careers they lead to.

Responding to the concerning fall in numbers of students studying computing education in the UK, David Wells, VP & Managing Director EMEA at Pegasystems has some advice for how to turn things around to benefit computing students and industries alike.

>See also: International Girls in ICT Day: the importance of bridging the gender gap

“Recent figures from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) highlight the need to transform the way computing education is taught in schools. The British Computing Society is right to warn that the number studying for a computing qualification could halve by 2020. It’s an urgent matter, not only for children’s futures, but also for the future of the UK economy. The question must be faced head-on: how can we improve the teaching of computing subjects and attract students?”

“We need to enthuse students to choose computing as a subject. Coding is important, but it’s not central to how businesses actually use information technology. We’ll always need students to have an understanding of how to work with code and program platforms. But computing education must also focus on logic, problem solving and on understanding how business processes work – not just on learning how to write lines of code.”

“What should lie at the heart of how computing is taught is problem solving that stretches the imagination and a sense of innovation in our young people. I can fully understand how computing education that’s over-focused could be a switch-off for a swathe of students who actually have the talent we need to grow Digital Britain. Problem.”

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is the editor for Information Age. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and cyber security.

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