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Computing ‘revolution’ led to 50% dip in girls taking course

Michael Gove’s computing curriculum revolution has led to 60 per cent fewer hours taught at GCSE, with the number of girls taking the subject halving, a study has found.

The decline could now harm the UK’s ambition to become a technology “superpower”, researchers from King’s College London have said.

Gove scrapped “boring” ICT lessons for a new curriculum emphasising computer science in 2014. 

But the researchers have found the number of computing hours taught in state schools since 2010 has dropped by 60 per cent at key stage 4, and 28 per cent in key stage 3.

In 2022, 82 per cent of secondaries had a key stage 3 computing provision, down from 91 per cent in 2010.

Calls for computing reform

Pete Dring, head of computing at Fulford School in York, said: “We need to reform the curriculum to include a comprehensive computing GCSE that provides essential skills and knowledge beyond just computer science.”

The study found 43 per cent of ICT GCSEs in 2015 were taken by girls, compared to 21 per cent taking GCSE computer science last year. 

In 2013, 69 per cent of girls took a GCSE exam in a computing-related qualification, similar to the 72 per cent of boys.

But just 17 per cent of girls took a computing-relating qualification in 2020, compared to 39 per cent of boys – which the study described as a “stark” decline.

Dr Peter Kemp, senior lecturer in computing education at King’s College London, said the current GCSE is “focused on computer science and developing programming skills, and this seems to deter some young people, in particular girls, from taking up the subject”.

A survey of almost 5,000 students found three-quarters of girls who did not take computing at GCSE said this was because they did not enjoy the subject, compared to 53 per cent of boys.

More than half of the girls also did not feel it aligned with their career plans.

“It is imperative that we see action to encourage more girls to take computing at school so they can develop the digital skills they will need to be able to participate in and shape our world,” Kemp added.

Computer science entries grow

The study called for government to review the qualifications to ensure it covers a “wider range of topics, appealing to a more diverse student population”.

They also want an “urgent” review of relative difficulty of the GCSE, potential early career payments for computing teachers to be explored and a national campaign to “showcase diverse role models in computing”.

Despite the negative findings, computing science was the fastest-growing STEM subject last year, according to BCS, the professional body for computing.

While GCSE entries increased at three per cent in 2023, computer science entries grew by 12 per cent.

The number of girls taking the subject is also growing, but they are still heavily outnumbered by boys – despite getting better grades.

The DfE said it has invested more than £100 million into the National Centre for Computing Education to, among other things, drive up participating in the subject at GCSE and A-level, particularly among girls.

To raise awareness of careers in the sector, the NCCE facilitates industry-led events for pupils, to encourage more young people into careers in computing and digital, the department added.

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