Computing education in 'steep decline' after reforms, warns report

The number of computing or ICT qualifications sat by pupils fell 45 per cent last summer, prompting academics to warn youngsters are now less likely to access a computing education than before the government’s reforms five years ago.

Pupils took about 144,000 fewer qualifications in either the government’s preferred computer science GCSE or other ICT qualifications last year compared with 2017, a report by the University of Roehampton has revealed.

The authors have warned computing education in England is now in “steep decline”.

It comes after schools have abandoned the ICT GCSE in droves after schools minister Nick Gibb scrapped it from league tables in 2015, with the last year 11 cohort sitting the exam this summer.

Meanwhile the proportion of pupils taking the computer science GCSE has only crept up a tiny 0.3 percentage points, from 12.1 per cent in 2017 to 12.4 per cent in 2018, the new research found.

Peter Kemp, one of the report authors, said despite the government recognising the huge importance of computing education, “young people are now less likely to access any computing education than they were before computer science was introduced”.

His report also revealed the number of hours spent teaching computing or ICT in key stage 4 dropped by 47 per cent over the period from 2012 to 2017, equating to 31,000 fewer hours taught per week.

The discouraging news comes despite the Department for Education pumping several million into training up computing “master teachers” for the past three years, and now a further £84 million for a National Centre of Computing Education in a bid to boost uptake.

The new national centre, which launched in November, operates virtually on a website through a network of up to 40 school-led computing hubs, and is meant to provide training and resources to primary and secondary schools, as well as an intensive training programme for secondary teachers without a post A-Level qualification in computer science.

Problems with the computer science GCSE, which was introduced in 2014, are well-documented – with girls and poorer pupils seemingly put off by its heavily coding-focussed content. 

The worrying trend prompted the British Computer Society (BCS), which designed the computer science GCSE, to call on the government to U-turn on its plans to scrap the ICT qualification in 2017 – a call which was ignored.

In September, Schools Week revealed the BCS had instead pledged to review whether computer science GCSE should be replaced by a “broader qualification”.

Kemp warned that with computer science uptake “levelling out” and the removal of GCSE ICT last year, “a further decline in the total numbers of hours of computing taught and qualifications taken seems highly likely for 2019 and beyond”.

The turnover rate of schools offering computer science GCSE is also “high”, according to the report.

There were 209 schools (8.2 per cent) which dropped the computer science qualification between 2017 and 2018. However overall the numbers of providers were up, as 321 new schools offered the course in 2018.

The report also revealed 19 per cent of girls-only comprehensives dropped the subject in 2018, compared to only one per cent of boys-only schools.

“If computing increasingly means CS, it looks likely that hundreds of thousands of students, particularly girls and poorer students, will be disenfranchised from a digital education over the next few years,” added Kemp.

A DfE spokesperson said the government had “continued to offer schools a range of support to improve the teaching of computing” and was investing £84 million to upskill up to 8,000 computer science teachers in order to drive up participation in computer science.

“Entries for computer science GCSE continue to rise, increasing from just over 4,000 when it was introduced in 2013 to over 70,000 in 2018,” they added.