Fewer and less diverse students are studying computing due to exam reforms, a new report warns.
The report from the University of Roehampton says that the numbers of key stage 4 students taking any computing qualification declined slightly until last year – and were now on a "cliff edge".
It says that the drop had been expected because the ICT GCSE is being scrapped and other vocational qualifications will no longer count in school league tables.
The report’s authors say that while numbers of students taking the new computer science GCSE have risen until now, computing science and ICT are quite different qualifications and are taken by quite different students.
Data from the Joint Council of Qualifications in 2017 revealed that 64,159 students entered GCSE computing and 59,438 entered ICT computing.
Computing science was introduced into the national curriculum in 2014 as a more rigorous alternative to ICT.
There is now a computer science GCSE and the ICT GCSE is being discontinued – it has not been included in the 9-1 grading GCSE reforms.
Girls 'put off computing'
There is also concern about other computing qualifications. The report states that the most common computing qualification is the BCS European Computing Driving Licence (ECDL), which accounts for nearly four in 10 of all computing examinations sat at key stage 4.
But the report points out that from 2018 the ECDL course can no longer be counted towards Progress 8, and “we thus expect to see uptake of this course decrease dramatically”.
“With ECDL being responsible for nearly four in 10 entrants, its decline, and the disappearance of GCSE ICT, means we may be facing a ‘cliff edge’ for students studying computing from 2018,” the report adds.
Today's report says that the decline will be most acute among girls, who make up almost half of ECDL students, 38 per cent of GCSE ICT students but only 20 per cent of GCSE computer science students.
And it adds that compared with 2014, when computer science was introduced, there were around 30,000 fewer females taking any computing qualification at KS4 in 2017.
There was also a lower proportion of pupil-premium students studying GCSE and A-level computer science compared with ICT GCSE, meaning that computing overall was becoming more exclusive.
The report says that GCSE computer science is a “hard” subject – with students typically getting half a grade lower in computer science than in their other subjects. At A level, it says computer science remains a “niche” subject – with 90 per cent of entries coming from boys.
“The decision to remove ICT as qualifications at GCSE and A level seems likely to result in fewer, and rather less diverse, students overall taking qualifications in computing,” the report states.
And the authors, Peter Kemp and Miles Berry from the University of Roehampton and Billy Wong from the University of Reading, are now calling for an urgent inquiry into the long-term impact that the removal of ICT will have on the digital education of young people.
“In particular, the analysis should examine if, and the extent to which, the current suite of available qualifications is truly inclusive and of benefit to all children,” it states.
“We believe there is a need for clarity on vocational qualifications and a need for a replacement for the ICT GCSE and A level, or a ‘single subject’ computing GCSE that encompasses the CS, IT and digital literacy elements recommended by The Royal Society and enshrined in the National Curriculum itself.”
The Royal Society warned in its report After the Reboot: Computing education in UK schools that three years after a new computing curriculum was introduced in England, computing education remains “patchy and fragile” across the UK.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The computer science GCSE – first introduced in 2013 – is providing pupils with a gold standard qualification and, with input from industry experts, is equipping them with the skills they will need for the high-tech jobs of the future.
“Entries for computer science continue to rise more quickly than any other subject, increasing year on year since its introduction. We have continued to offer schools a range of support to improve the teaching of computing since its introduction and are investing £84 million of new funding over the next four years to upskill 8,000 computer science teachers and drive up participation in computer science, particularly among girls.”