Last word

They may have one of the smaller stands at BETT 2006, but their software is making a big impact in education - and what's more, the package doesn't cost a penny. The CC4G (Computer Clubs for Girls) organisation helps schools run computer clubs for girls, to fire enthusiasm for ICT and help young women develop the confidence to pursue a career in the IT industry.

Over 750 clubs are now in operation, and Melody Hermon, CC4G programme manager, says: "We are inviting schools to come along and sign up at BETT.

The resources are free, and it doesn't have to be the ICT teacher who runs the club - facilitators range from music teachers to learning support assistants. The important thing is enthusiasm."

The initiative is aimed at redressing the startling gender imbalance in the technology sector. Back in the 1960s, half the IT workforce was female.

Today the figure has plummeted to 20 per cent, and is now declining year on year.

CC4G was conceived by e-skills UK, the organisation tasked with improving the country's IT skills. The idea is to head off negative perceptions of ICT at an early stage, by giving 10 to 14-year-old girls the chance to relax and do their own thing with technology. Rather than competing for keyboard time and letting boys call the tune, girls collaborate on appealing projects such as publishing a fanzine, creating a fashion show or mixing music. Online courseware supports nearly 100 hours of activities, all linked to the curriculum.

The first clubs were opened three years ago in the South East, and a national rollout began last year. Teachers report success: not only are club members becoming more positive and skilled with ICT, their all-round confidence has also increased. "Girls have been feeling freer to explore and have a go at things, rather than hanging back and waiting to be told what to do next," says Hermon. "We keep asking them whether boys should be allowed to join, and 95 per cent say No. They say: 'Boys mess around', or 'I wouldn't get to have a go' or 'I would feel stupid'."

Until now the CC4G brand has been sugar sweet - swathed in pale pink and geared towards girly themes such as celebs, clothes and the charts. "Now we are confident in what we've got; we are beginning to move away from that image," says Hermon. "Our most recent topics are a crime-scene investigation, a computer-aided design (CAD) project along the lines of Changing Rooms, and Campaign, which is about campaigning on environmental issues. We are also developing a network of volunteers from the industry, who will be going in and helping with the clubs. In many cases they will be young, female role models girls can aspire to."

Employers such as IBM and British Airways provide industry intelligence that helps shape the courseware. "We are beginning to think about developing collaborative projects between schools, to mirror the way that industry professionals are using technology to collaborate," says Melody.

"We can't predict the IT skills employers will be looking for in five or ten years' time, but by building their technology capability now, the girls are also developing their ability to learn in the future. They are also developing skills like project management, planning, and critical reasoning - generic skills that the industry is crying out for."

The industry itself may have to change in order to attract more women recruits. Sandra Smith is head of information systems at Toshiba, which recently surveyed the views of more than 1,000 girls between the ages of 11 and 18. "Although we found that more than a quarter of girls aren't receiving advice on a career in IT, there doesn't seem to be anything happening at school which is actually putting them off the idea.

"The problem, I believe, is that girls have never opted for an IT career straight from school - and now the opportunities for getting into the industry at a later stage have disappeared. Twenty five years ago, one way in was to start as a trainee computer operator - most operations jobs were done by women - and then move on to become a trainee programmer. Now the machines look after themselves, so the operations jobs have gone. And the industry is asking young women to make too much of a commitment up front.

The only trainee programmer job I have seen advertised recently asked for a first-class degree in IT, maths or engineering. Why? I would rather employ a clarinet player, who would already be able to read code and have manual dexterity."


CC4G - Computer Clubs for Girls Stand S28

Resources are currently being offered free to all state schools in England through DfES funding. The courseware covers 40 hours of e-learning and 55 hours of offline challenges and projects. Clubs also receive free software applications from industry donors: the MindGenius mind-mapping package; Ibasic, for creating computer games, and a series of graphic design and web publishing tools from Serif. A national helpline and advice service is provided, together with promotional materials and free gifts for club members. A range of well-known employers are working with CC4G to host events, sponsor schools, and provide volunteer staff to help out at clubs.


Axios 'A' Star Awards

Now entering their sixth year, the Axios 'A' Star awards recognise the UK's top female computing students. Every girl who takes ICT or Computing exams at GCSE or A Level - or Standard Grade or Advanced Higher Computing in Scotland - is automatically entered for the competition. Those who score the highest marks qualify for the UK finals, decided by tiebreaker exercises done over the internet, and regional prizes are also awarded.

This year's winners were 18-year-old Yasmeen Ahmad, from Morgan Academy in Dundee, who has a passion for software development, and 16-year-old Amy Morreau, from Radyr Comprehensive in Cardiff, an accomplished gymnast who has trained as a trapeze artist with a local circus.

The awards were founded by Ailsa Symeonides of Axios Systems, to highlight the gender imbalance in IT and attract more women into the industry.

Sponsors include Accenture, IBM and the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Some sponsors run student mentoring schemes and can arrange for female IT professionals to visit schools. Schools can register their interest at www.axiossystems.comastar

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