GCSE IT is changing, but is it the way forward Part II
June 28, 2017
Like British politics, GCSE IT is undergoing a revolution, but is it the way forward? Part II
A revolution is under way in the teaching of computer science in schools in England – but it risks leaving girls and pupils from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities behind. That's the conclusion of a study regarding the move from ICT as a national curriculum subject to computer science.
Four years ago, amid disquiet that ICT was teaching children little more than how Microsoft Office worked, the government took the subject off the national curriculum. The idea was that instead schools should move to offering more rigorous courses in computer science; children would learn to code rather than how to do PowerPoint.
But academics have some worrying news. First, just 28% of schools entered pupils for the GCSE in computing in 2015. At A-level, only 24% entered pupils for the qualification.
Then there's the evidence that girls just aren't being persuaded to take an interest: 16% of GCSE computing entrants in 2015 were female and the figure for the A-level was just 8.5%. The qualification is relatively new and more schools – and more girls, took it in 2016 – but female participation was still only 20% for the GCSE and 10% for the A-level.
Diversity in the kind of children getting computing education is important: if the current disparities in access go unaddressed we risk wasting the opportunity to transform the tech industry into a more equal profession.
The nationwide worry is that schools are looking at this new subject with some scepticism and deciding that there are other priorities when budgets are tight. In schools that are offering the new A-level in computing, class sizes tend to be small, raising the prospect that their economic viability will be questioned under new sixth form funding arrangements.
And while many teachers supported the move towards a more rigorous form of computing education, some who warned about the danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater now feel vindicated.
Experts say the new exam is just too hard for many children, and is proving very stressful for teachers too. The result may well be that whole cohorts of students are now completely switched off doing any computer-related GCSE.
Moreover, the content of the new course is so different that many ICT teachers just do not have the knowledge to teach it. As a result, computer science could become a niche subject, one taught in only a few schools.
However, the Department for Education is looking on the bright side. "The number of girls studying computer science has nearly doubled since last year and we want to see more follow their example," a spokesperson is quoted as saying.
The DfE went on to say that "mastering Stem skills would ensure our future workforce has the skills to drive the future productivity and economy of this country".
What it doesn't say is that computer science can be creative and fun. Perhaps those words need to be inserted into the curriculum, otherwise many pupils and teachers may decide that computing is just too hard to bother with.