Gender gap in computing set to worsen as ICT is scrapped

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
A man’s world? Of 67,000 computer science GCSE students in 2017, only 13,700 were female (Image: Adobe Stock)

The stark gender gap in computer science education means that 30,000 fewer girls are now taking a key stage 4 computing qualification – and the problem is set to worsen as ICT GCSE is scrapped this summer. Pete Henshaw reports

There is a stark gender gap in the study of computer science GCSE and A level as girls continue to be “heavily under-represented” in the subjects.

Furthermore, the number of girls taking a computing qualification at key stage 4 has dropped sharply since 2014.

The latest figures have caused alarm not least because the GCSE in ICT – where female representation is much better – is ending this summer.

The findings are reported in the annual Computing Education Report from the University of Roehampton, which was published on Monday (June 18). It reveals that:

  • At GCSE, only 20 per cent of entries are from female students.
  • At A level, only 10 per cent of entries are from female students.
  • Take-up at GCSE is lower in all-girl schools than in all-boy schools.
  • In 25 local authorities, all the computer science entries come from boys.
  • Overall, only 34 per cent of all females are taking a computing qualification at key stage 4, compared to 51 per cent of all males.
  • Compared to 2014 – when computer science was introduced – there are now 30,000 fewer girls taking any computing qualification at key stage 4.
  • When girls do take the GCSE, they obtain good grades, with higher proportions of A*, A and B grades than their male peers.

The report – authored by Peter Kemp, Roehampton’s senior lecturer in computing education – points out that female students are much better represented in digitally “creative” qualifications such as iMedia and those available through BTEC, than they are in computer science. Girls are also better represented in GCSE ICT (38 per cent).

However, GCSE ICT is set to be ended this summer and there is concern in the sector about the impact this will have, including on the gender gap.

Overall, more than 67,000 pupils sat a computer science GCSE in 2017 (13,694 female and 53,794 male) and a further 59,000 sat ICT GCSE.

The report is calling for an “urgent inquiry” into the long-term impact that the removal of ICT from the curriculum will have on the digital education students receive and the gender gap.

It states: “In particular, (the inquiry) should examine if, and the extent to which, the current suite of available qualifications is truly inclusive and of benefit to all children.

“We believe there is a need for clarity on vocational qualifications and a need for a replacement for the ICT GCSE and A level, or a ‘single subject’ computing GCSE that encompasses the computer science, IT and digital literacy elements recommended by the Royal Society and enshrined in the national curriculum itself.”

It adds: “GCSE ICT shows much better female representation (38 per cent) and its removal will almost certainly lead to fewer females studying a computing GCSE beyond 2018.”

Overall, the report finds that while take-up of computer science continues to rise, the rate of take-up has slowed since 2014. Furthermore, provision remains “patchy”, with 47.5 per cent of schools still not offering a GCSE in the subject.

And relatively few students are choosing to take the subject, with 11.9 per cent taking the GCSE and 2.7 per cent the A level.

Many students miss out because their school does not offer the GCSE in the first place – although this situation is also improving with 76.3 per cent of students now in schools where they can take computer science GCSE. Overall, 52.5 per cent of schools now offer the GCSE and 36.2 per cent the A level.

Another finding of the report is that computer science is hard – at GCSE, students typically get half a grade lower than in their other subjects and at A level, grades are also a little lower (by one-sixth) than other subjects.

Another concern raised in the report centres on the viability of small class sizes in computing at A level. It states that budgetary concerns among college and sixth form providers mean the “on-going sustainability of A level computer science remains a concern”. It warns that 86.5 per cent of key stage 5 providers are below the Department for Education’s “minimum viable
A level class size”.

Julia Adamson, director of education at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, said: “There are number of areas of concern. For example, the slowing of take-up of the subject at GCSE; the effect of class size, the gender gap, and the clear need to increase the ability range of those taking the qualifications. The gender mix identified in this report also starkly shows the need to engage more girls in the subject, while the ethnicity data shows very patchy engagement.

“The report also raises the danger of further exacerbating these issues as GCSE and A level ICT are removed from the curriculum in 2018. What’s clear from the report is that despite much good work to date, we still have a lack of young people with the work-ready digital and computing skills that our economy needs.”

Ms Adamson said key to tackling many of the challenges highlighted in the report was improving the “supply of qualified, capable and confident computing teachers”. She also wants to see a range of “suitable qualifications at key stage 4 and beyond”.


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