Why the number of students taking GCSE IT has fallen and how it can be reversed

A group of schoolchildren working on PCs
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Over the coming years, businesses and organisations will increasingly face a shortage of technology professionals because not enough young people are studying IT-related courses. There’s been a 40% decrease in students taking part in GCSE IT courses in the last six years. While 147,000 young people were studying GCSE ICT in 2015, this fell to 88,000 last year, according to a recent report from the Learning and Work Institute.

As many young people choose not to study IT subjects in school, demand for digital and technical skills is growing across all industries. In fact, the Learning and Work Institute report found that 60% of businesses believe they’ll become more reliant on advanced digital skills in the next five years. So, why are students shunning technology-based courses, and what will it take to fix this growing issue?

A growing issue

Despite fewer students taking up GCSE IT courses in recent years, experts warn that the government and educational bodies are failing to improve the ICT curriculum in the UK. Nigel Abbott, regional director of north EMEA at GitHub, says: “It is of course concerning that young people are steering away from IT GCSE. But unless the UK curriculum addresses the fundamental shortcomings in the way it teaches IT, this will not change. Students are currently being taught technical specifics that, by the time they take the next step in education or enter the workforce, are quickly outdated.”

Abbott believes that technically minded problem solvers are in growing demand by businesses today and that this should be reflected in the classroom. “So, IT GCSEs must focus on teaching young people how to think not what to think. Only by equipping them with techniques to think like coders will they learn how to solve complex IT problems. This approach would be beneficial for students, potential employers and the future of IT.”

Graham Hunter, VP of skills at CompTIA, points out that many young people don’t understand what a career in IT really means. As a result, they may be put off studying academic courses in the area – what he terms a “confidence gap”. He tells IT Pro: “Without sufficient role models, students often end up leaning on stereotypes like having to be good at maths for a career in technology.”

He says determining the right career path while in mainstream education can be a significant struggle, too. “When it comes to specialist vocational subjects like IT, introducing other progression options, such as apprenticeships and industry qualifications, can help to ignite and drive interest in IT earlier on in a student’s educational journey,” explains Hunter.

"Early exposure to IT careers for students is essential to promoting an interest in IT from more young people. UK businesses can facilitate this is by providing better, alternative ways for aspiring professionals to develop their skills, such as work experience or apprenticeships."

A wake-up call

The dramatic fall in students choosing to take computing GCSEs at a time when UK organisations continue to accelerate their digital strategies should be a wake-up call for educational institutions and businesses, says Jen Rodvold, head of digital ethics and tech for good at Sopra Steria.

Her view is that businesses need to work on several fronts to ward off a detrimental digital skills shortage. “Employers should increase their work with schools and colleges, sharing information with administrators and educators on what skills they are seeking in the short and medium terms to help shape employment-relevant curriculum,” she says. “They also need to send role models into classrooms to inspire young people by showing them the range of opportunities and the diversity of people working in tech.”


The IT Pro Podcast: Why the tech skills gap doesn’t exist

It’s a perennial problem, but the issue may not lie in a lack of talent


Rodvold says employers can also address skills shortages by reducing unnecessary barriers to roles, such as ensuring entry-level jobs and apprenticeships are open to people of all backgrounds, including those without a degree. “It is no longer acceptable to say a job is ‘entry level’ when it requires significant skills and a level of education that may not have been accessible to all,” she explains.

Business leaders and recruiters must also understand what kind of transferable skills from both inside and outside their industry can be considered from job applicants in order to close the skills gap.

“It’s critical for businesses to accept that, while STEM education is a great foundation for learning, continuous on-the-job training is incredibly valuable. In fact, there are a lot of professional or essential skills that are harder to train for than technical skills, so valuing the so-called soft skills, and then providing opportunities to learn new digital skills, is a great way to invest in people,” says Rodvold.

She adds that although there is no single silver bullet solution for inspiring students to take GCSE IT, this only further highlights the need for the organisations looking to plug the skills gap to explore as many avenues as possible to reverse the decline.

“Making these changes will not only help fill skills gaps now and serve as an investment towards future skills needs, but it will also help organisations improve their diversity and contribute to greater social mobility,” Rovold concludes.

Businesses taking action

With countless reports of a widening skills gap in the tech industry over the past few years, the fact that GCSE ICT uptake is continuing to decrease will be very worrying for businesses and organisations that depend on technical talent.

Alex Foster, director of insurance, wealth management, and financial services at BT, says: “Any drop in the take up of computing and other STEM subjects is of concern to the technology sector where there is already a growing skills gap.

“While many schools have specialist teachers for subjects like Maths, English and French, few schools in the UK have specialist computing teachers. Teaching IT requires a specialist skill set that can’t easily be filled by one teacher juggling multiple roles.”

But as a business that relies heavily on technical talent, BT is taking several steps to help young people develop a range of STEM skills and encourage them to pursue careers in the technology industry.

“BT’s purpose is to Connect for Good, which means we have a responsibility to do all we can alongside parents and teachers to encourage the take up of STEM. During lockdown, BT and EE mobile worked to increase access to mobile data for students, and continued to work on initiatives to further education in IT,” says Foster.

“Our partnership with Code First Girls provides women with the skills, space and inspiration to break into and excel in the tech industry by providing a community of coders and coaches, while our Skills for Tomorrow initiative with Internet Matters helps parents and families manage online risks while supporting children’s digital wellbeing and skills growth.”

Foster explains that the firm has also worked in partnership with the government, education organisations and technology businesses on the Barefoot Computing initiative, which provides free workshops and online guides to aid primary school teachers in delivering the computing curriculum.

She adds: “By supporting initiatives and showcasing exciting developments in this sector, we hope to increase awareness among young people of the huge array of opportunities that are available when studying computing and other STEM GCSEs.”

The decline in students studying GCSE IT is concerning for all businesses and organisations. But the only way to solve this crisis is by businesses, academic institutions, and the government working together to encourage young people to upskill in technical subjects and enter the technology industry. This will be paramount as more businesses and organisations look to digitally transform.

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.