Computing curriculum leaving digital skills behind, research suggests

The current computing curriculum is so focused on programming skills that other essential digital skills are left by the wayside, according to a report by the Subject Choice, Attainment and Representation in Computing Project (SCARI).

Over the past three years, SCARI, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has been looking into computing education in the UK, considering both stats on subject uptake, as well as student, parent and teacher opinion to highlight the pros and cons of the current computing curriculum, and to make suggestions on how it should look in the future.

Its recent report suggested that the low uptake of computing subjects, as well as the lack of girls choosing to take these subjects, is threatening the UK’s plans to be a “science and technology superpower”.

In part, it believes this is down to the low uptake of some computing subjects meaning that many aren’t gaining the digital skills that were previously part of the ICT curriculum, and since there are fewer girls taking the subject than boys, it’s not only causing a skills gap but a diversity gap.

Pete Dring, head of computing at Fulford School in York, said of the research: “Every student should be leaving school with the digital skills required to thrive in the workplace and society. We need to reform the curriculum to include a comprehensive computing GCSE that provides essential skills and knowledge beyond just computer science.”

In 2014, the UK government reformed the computing curriculum, shifting the focus towards teaching children “computational thinking” and programming skills, while phasing out the old ICT curriculum.

SCARI claimed this shift in focus has led to a reduction in time spent on the basic digital skills and literacy that all young people will need to navigate later life. While the uptake of computer science at GCSE level has been increasing since the new curriculum was introduced, there has been a hit to other digital skills at secondary level, with a large drop in the number of students studying a digital qualification of some kind at GCSE level.

Diversity of students taking these subjects, which was not great to begin with, has also taken a hit, with the number of girls taking tech-based GCSEs has been in decline since the new curriculum was introduced. In 2023, girls made up 21% of those taking computer science at GCSE as opposed to making up 43% of ICT GCSE entrants in 2015.

Now, girls show more of an interest than boys in subjects the resemble the old ICT curriculum, such as digital media, project work and presentations, though SCARI suggested the increased uptake in computer science GCSE entrants specifically over the past 10 years has overshadowed that numbers of students choosing to study other computing-based qualifications is in decline.

Further breaking down the drop in the numbers of girls choosing GCSE computing subjects, prior to the curriculum reform in 2013, 69% of female students and 72% of male students took a computing-related exam at GCSE level, dropping to 17% of female students and 39% of male students in 2020.

It’s well known that stereotypes surrounding tech careers and workers deter some children from going into computing careers after education.

SCARI found that the stereotype that computer scientists are male is more likely to be something girls mention than boys, and when young people are asked about tech careers, they are more likely to talk about those at the top of the world’s “big five” tech companies, despite tech roles and jobs being extremely varied.

Because 55% of girls claimed they chose computer science GCSE based on their future career ideas, negative stereotypes surrounding what tech careers are like and the types of people who go into them only stands to deter girls from pursuing these subjects. Even when they choose a computer science GCSE, girls are 42% less likely than boys to want to be computer scientists.

SCARI found that many of the girls who have chosen computer science subjects at GCSE are actually planning to use these skills for careers that more resemble the old ICT curriculum, such as graphic design.

Nearly 75% of girls who chose not to take computing at GCSE level said it was because they didn’t enjoy it as a subject, and 56% said it was because computing didn’t fit well with their future career ideas.

These percentages are far higher than boys who said the same – out of the boys who don’t want to take computing at GCSE level, 56% said it was because they didn’t enjoy it, and only 39% said it doesn’t align with their future career path.

There are is also a question about the difficulty of computer science as a subject, with parents, students and teachers all perceive computing to be challenging, backed by BCS and qualifications regulator Ofqal showing concern that computing exams may be particularly hard.

SCARI also expressed concerns about how the lack of girls taking computing subjects may affect the future of computing, leaving men “shaping the modern world”.

Principal investigator, Peter Kemp, senior lecturer in computing education at King’s College London, said: “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.

“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. We need to ensure computing is a subject that is appealing to all pupils and meets the needs of young people and society.”

When it comes to the ethnicity of girls choosing computer science at GCSE, white female students are among the lowest at 4.5% in 2020, whereas female students with a Chinese background made up 16% of computer science GCSE entrants, 11.2% of entrants comprising of Asian female students, and black female students making up 6.2%.

With black women making up only 0.7% of tech sector workers in the UK, it bears looking into what happens to these students after their GCSEs that stop them from making it to industry.

Ethnicity is not the only characteristic that sees disparities in the uptake of computing among girls and students in general.

Regionally, 71% of schools in the East of England offer a computer science GCSE qualification, as opposed to just 56% in the North East. Urban schools are more likely to offer computer science at both GCSE and A-level than rural schools.

More grammar schools offer a computing GCSE than state schools – SCARI found 96% of grammar schools offer a computing GCSE, as opposed to only 80% of state schools. The pattern persists at A-level, with 87% of grammar schools offering a computer A-level versus 57% of state schools.

Schools with the highest uptake of free schools meals are also less likely to offer computing at GCSE or A-level than schools with a low uptake of the free school meals programme.

SCARI also found that around 80% of UK state schools teaching hours for computing subjects has dropped since 2010 at Key Stage levels 3, 4 and 5.

Teachers are just as unprepared to teach the computing curriculum now as when it was first introduced, and some teachers claimed to have issues with how the curriculum was introduced, saying people weren’t prepared for it and did not have the correct subject knowledge to teach it.  

It’s not uncommon for teachers to have students who are more advanced than themselves when it comes to computing, with 81% saying they have taught students who are better programmers than them, but only 48% claiming they have had teacher training on how to support exceptional young coding students.

When looking at government targets for teachers in certain subject areas, those choosing teacher training for computing subjects are among the lowest numbers.

SCARI also found that teachers and senior leaders in schools do not like the current computing curriculum, thinking it’s too narrow, and believing it doesn’t cater to diverse interests or talents, with its overarching theme being coding and maths.

Many teachers claimed important continued professional development is both extremely important and variable in quality and access when it comes to computing.

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