Calls grow for an overhaul of GCSE computer science as number of girls studying the subject nosedives

Female students in a classroom typing on a laptop keyboard with notepads in foreground.
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The UK's ambitions to be a tech superpower could be jeopardized by a stark decline in girls studying computing, King's College researchers have warned.

The number of girls in England taking GCSE-level computing has more than halved since 2015 since the curriculum became narrower in scope.

The report, based on a survey of nearly 5,000 students, found that girls are more likely than boys to say they don't enjoy computer science GCSE, that it doesn't align with their career plans, or it seems more difficult than other subjects.

Maggie Philbin, technology broadcaster and director of TeenTech, which promotes digital skills, said the study highlights serious concerns about female representation in computing science.

"At the moment, many students see the subject as ‘difficult’ and vote with their feet if they are aiming for the best grades," she said.

The authors warned that strong stereotypes about still computing persist. When pupils were asked to name notable figures in the field, it was men such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who dominated the top 10 list. The only two women included – Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace – are both long deceased.

The decline has followed a change in the curriculum in England in 2014, from Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to a greater focus on Computer Science that focuses predominantly on computer theory and programming skills.

While 43% of those who took the ICT GCSE in 2015 were girls, the figure for GCSE Computer Science in 2023 was just 21%.

"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," said Dr Peter Kemp, senior lecturer in computing education at King’s and principal investigator for the study.

"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."

Researchers also interviewed 45 stakeholders including teachers and school leaders, and analyzed 960 school documents. They found that many teachers and senior school leaders were dissatisfied with the new GCSE Computer Science specification and felt unprepared to teach it.

Teachers called for better access to continuous professional development, especially around ensuring diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI), as well as subject-specific training.

The report recommends rewriting the computing curriculum to focus on broader digital skills, promoting and enhancing teacher training and professional development and supporting inclusive computing education in schools.

"Every student should be leaving school with the digital skills required to thrive in the workplace and society," said Pete Dring, head of computing at Fulford School in York.

"We need to reform the curriculum to include a comprehensive computing GCSE that provides essential skills and knowledge beyond just Computer Science."

Calls for an overhaul of GCSE computer science come amidst heightened concerns over the uptake of STEM-related subjects. While tentative gains have been recorded in recent years, industry stakeholders insist that significant improvements will be required to increase the flow of talent into the UK’s burgeoning tech sector.

A long-standing skills gap has been repeatedly highlighted as a key hurdle for the industry, with boosting female representation in the sector has become an imperative.

Late last year, research from BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, found that if current trends continue, it could take nearly 300 years for women to account for an equal share of the tech sector workforce.

The study found that 94% of girls and 79% of boys drop computing at age 14, and the BCS too is calling for a broader digital curriculum in future.

Emma Woollacott

Emma Woollacott is a freelance journalist writing for publications including the BBC, Private Eye, Forbes, Raconteur and specialist technology titles.