Number of girls in England taking computing GCSE plummets, study finds – The Guardian

Introduction of new syllabus may be reason number of girls taking subject more than halved in eight years, academics say
The number of girls in England studying for a GCSE in computing has more than halved in less than a decade, prompting warnings about the “dominance of men in shaping the modern world”.
The sharp decline in female participation follows government qualification changes that led to the scrapping of the old information communication technology (ICT) GCSE and its replacement with a new computer science GCSE.
While the government’s reforms were aimed at creating “more academically challenging and knowledge-based” qualifications, the introduction of the new syllabus has had the unintended consequence of driving female entries down, according to new research by King’s College London.
In 2015 43% of candidates for ICT GCSE were female, compared with just 21% of those who took GCSE computer science in 2023.
In numerical terms, 40,000 female students took ICT GCSE in 2015, with a further 5,000 taking computer science. In 2023, with ICT no longer available, just 18,600 females took computer science.
Asked to give their reasons, girls who chose not to study it said they did not enjoy computer science. They also said it did not fit in with their career plans, the research found.
Critics of the old ICT qualification complained that it taught little more than how to use Microsoft Office. In contrast, the new computer science GCSE, with its focus on computer theory, coding and programming, is perceived by many pupils as “difficult” when compared with other subjects.
The study acknowledged that the GCSE in computer science has become well established, with 88,000 students taking the subject in 2023 and a four-fold rise in A-level entries between 2013 and 2023.
“However, these successes have coincided with a general decline in computing and digital skills education at the secondary school level, particularly affecting girls, certain ethnic groups and students from underserved socioeconomic backgrounds,” it said.
The report included a series of recommendations calling for urgent reform of the curriculum, better support for computing teachers and a change to the “current narrative around computing to focus beyond male tech entrepreneurs”.
Its authors warned: “The lack of women in computing may lead to heightened vulnerabilities and the dominance of men in shaping the modern world.”
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Dr Peter Kemp, a senior lecturer in computing education at King’s College London who was the study’s principal investigator, 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.”
“Every student should be leaving school with the digital skills required to thrive in the workplace and society,” said Pete Dring, the 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.”
Maggie Philbin, a technology broadcaster and the director of TeenTech, which promotes digital skills, added: “At the moment, many students see the subject as ‘difficult’ and vote with their feet if they are aiming for the best grades. It’s time to take a fresh look at the subject and work with teachers to design a curriculum which is more appealing and which teachers feel confident to deliver.”

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