Is computer science attractive enough?

GCSE Computer Science grades are improving, but BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, says more needs to be done to support teachers and pupils in this subject to improve uptake

Record numbers of students achieved standard and top grades in their Computer Science GCSE, despite the decision not to include coursework in the final marking.
A total of 72,485 students sat the exam this year – an increase of 11.8 per cent on 2017. Of those students, 44,650 students -(61.1 per cent of the total) attained grades 9 to 4, equivalent to the old A* to C grades. 15,222 students (21 per cent of the total) achieved grades 9 to 7, equivalent to the old A* and A grades.
In January, Ofqual suspended the non-exam assessment component, after it was agreed that the practical component had significant shortfalls and a perception that malpractice was widespread including programming tasks and solutions being shared and discussed online.
The decision compounded an attainment issue, highlighted in the Roehampton report on computing education. It suggested that Computer Science was already harder to pass than other GCSE subjects, with students typically getting half a grade lower in Computer Science than in their other subjects.

Fair assessment

Julia Adamson, director of education at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, said: “It’s vital that examination grades are fair and reliable.
“The withdrawal of the non-exam assessment component during the 2018 academic year was less than ideal, but it was necessary to ensure that the students who took the qualification this year, and will do next year, are treated equally and their final grades can unquestionably be relied upon.”
Ofqual will be consulting on how to assess practical skill from 2020 onwards, and the BCS will be contributing.
Now the BCS is calling on the government and schools to make Computer Science more attractive to young people.
Although there was an a year-on-year increase in the number of students sitting Computer Science GCSE, just over 72,485 students took Computer Science in 2018.
What’s more, despite record numbers of students getting top grades in their Computer Science GCSE exams, the number of students with a qualification in computing has fallen, as far fewer students sat the ICT examination, which has been discontinued.
There has been a decline of 22,850 – or 16.6 per cent – of students leaving Key Stage 4 with a qualification in computing-related subjects.     
Yet, the government estimates that 90 per cent of all future jobs will require digital skills and that by 2022 the UK will need an additional 1.2 million new technical and digitally skilled people.

Little funding and awareness

Julia Adamson said: “Computer Science was only introduced four years ago and is still a new subject for schools. These results are testament to the energy and enthusiasm teachers have put into giving a great many children the high quality, inspiring computing education they need.”
“However, the subject has suffered from too little funding and a lack of awareness, with the result that uptake is still too low.
“There is a critical need to improve computer science teaching through better professional development, support and resources. We need to recognise the value of the subject and students, particularly girls, need to be encouraged and supported to take the subject.
“Equipping young people with good quality and relevant computing and IT skills provides a pathway to social mobility. We need to help ensure all pupils, regardless of background, receive the best possible education and the same access to opportunity.”
The call was echoed by Sue Sentance, board member of Computing At School, part of BCS, who said: “If education is about helping children to understand the world around them and preparing them for the world of work, then Computer Science in schools is vital when 90 per cent of future jobs will require digital skills.”
Miles Berry, Principal Lecturer in Computing Education at the University of Roehampton, said: “Whilst I’m glad there’s be an increase in uptake, it’s sad to see the end of GCSE ICT, with a consequent narrowing of digital skills at this level.
“I wonder if it’s time to look at developing a broad, balanced GCSE in computing, to cover computer science, information technology and digital literacy, just as our world leading national curriculum does.”

Speaking for industry, Rebecca George OBE, Vice chair and UK public sector leader at Deloitte, said: “Equipping young people with good quality and relevant computing and IT skills provides a pathway to social mobility.
“Too few teenagers realise how many and varied IT job opportunities there are, and the vital contribution that IT makes to the wider economy.”

The A level picture

Meanwhile, the A Level scenario remains stable. The number of UK students leaving post-16 education with a qualification in a computing-related subject has remained stable.
But BCS fears this number could slump dramatically next summer, as the ICT A-Level is discontinued, leaving only the more academic Computer Science option.
A-Level results show 15,149 students passed an A-Level in either Computer Science or ICT, down very slightly from 15,161 in 2017.
The number of students passing Computer Science increased from 7,851 in 2017 to 9,772 this year, which is a rise of 24 per cent. The number passing ICT fell for a fourth consecutive year, from 7,310 in 2017 to 5,378 this year - a 20 per cent decline.
The number of students attaining an A-Level in Computer Science overtook ICT in 2017. June 2018 was the last sitting of ICT A-Level examinations in England.
Computer Science is the study of the foundational principles and practices of computation and computational thinking, and their application in the design and development of computer systems, and is a subject discipline, on a par with Maths or Physics.
ICT focuses on the creative and productive use and application of technology and computer systems, especially in organisations.
Julia Adamson said: “Twelve fewer students left school with an A-Level in a computing-related subject this year compared with last. What we need to see is major growth. We need a minimum of 40,000 students gaining an advanced computing qualification every year.
“To achieve that, we need to improve Computer Science teaching through better professional development, support and resources.
“We welcome government investment in the National Centre for Computing Education, which will invest significantly in computing teacher training, support and resources and is set launch in the Autumn.
“Students who study an advanced computing qualification will benefit from significant payback for themselves, for the economy, and in increased productivity.
“As a society, we need to make sure that our young people are leaving education with the digital skills they need to secure their first job, an apprenticeship, or go on to further study.”