Alarm over dip in pupil interest in reformed computing GCSE

Could the current sluggish take-up for the new Computer Science exam have poor consequences later down the line for a Digital Britain?

Posted 19 June 2017 by Gary Flood

Concerns have been raised about the future of UK IT skills, given a surprising lack of interest in a revamped GCSE school curriculum that was supposed to spark interest in the subject by going back to programming basics.

Under the Coalition, the older ICT GCSE was deemed to be too lightweight, deemed to consist ultimately of little more than training kids early on how to use the Microsoft Office suite and not instilling basic programming awareness. The last ICT candidates will sit that exam next summer (2018).

As a result, the qualification’s been phased out in favour of a new Computer Science version – but as the BBC reported on Sunday, not enough pupils seem convinced the change has been worth it.

The Beeb’s technology Correspondent Rory Clellan-Jones quotes data from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) that show “only a modest rise in students” taking the new school year tech certificate.

That data shows entries for the exam have only risen to 67,800 this year from 61,220 in 2016 – and as 58,600 are still taking the ICT exam, the overall number getting a GCSE computing qualification has thus actually fallen, completely against the last government’s ambition.

In response, the professional body of UK computer professionals, The British Computing Society Chartered Institute for IT said last week that it’s “deeply concerned“.

In a strongly-worded statement on its website, the group warns the number studying for a computing qualification could halve by 2020, a development that would be a “disaster” for “our children, and the future of the nation”.

The BCS also notes that it was “unrealistic” to expect teachers of ICT to turn into teachers of computer science without significant training and support, and despite initiatives from organisations like Computing At School there has just not been enough funding to usher in the desired change at the scale envisaged.

A big negative for many observers is the poor take up by that endemically under-represented computer industry gender, women.

Clellan-Jones quotes two experts on that aspect, with one, University College London’s Knowledge Lab’s Professor Rose Luckin telling him, “Computer science is seen as more ‘techie’ and it is still dominated by men… Many girls believe computer science and coding is ‘for boys’ and they do not see desirable career options that appeal to them.”

He also quotes defenders of the junked ICT course, quoting one, Drew Buddie, head of computing at a school near London, saying the older course was “unfairly maligned” and was “far more creative than its critics assumed”.

“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 is also quoted as saying.

Clellan-Jones quotes a Department for Education that the new exam had been designed with industry experts to develop the computational skills needed for today’s economy, and that the numbers taking it had more than doubled since 2015.

“We expect that number to continue to rise while ICT GCSE is phased out [and] are continuing to work to encourage even greater uptake of computer science, especially among girls.”