Last November, 18-year-old Teresa Thurston stepped into the limelight as a role model for young women around the country. Teresa, who studied at Canford School in Wimborne, was named as the country's top female computing student in the prestigious Axios A-Star Awards, designed to help schools attract more young women into the world of ICT.
Teresa describes ICT as "cool", but few women appear to share her view. In the IT industry, women make up only 23 per cent of the workforce. Sales and marketing director of Axios Systems, Ailsa Symeonides says: "The only way we are going to solve this problem is by starting in schools." She devised the awards after discovering that her daughter's classmates considered technology was boring and only for geeks.
It appears that girls' reluctance to study ICT stems from their perceptions, rather than their performance in the subject. They perform at least as well as boys, and in some cases better. Jill Clare, ICT consultant for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says: "At A-level, boys taking computing outnumber girls by 3.5 to 1, but the girls are achieving the same percentage of high grades. At VCE, the girls are outnumbered 3 to 1, but they do twice as well in the high grades. The pattern is similar at GCSE - 3 to 1, but the girls achieve consistently more of the higher grades at every level.
The QCA is studying how boys and girls perceive ICT and working on ways to make it more appealing; this could lead to new qualifications. Jill Clare says: "It isn't just a technical subject or a way of becoming a secretary.
Pupils are being encouraged to apply ICT creatively - for design, communication, music or film-making. This is exemplified on the National Curriculum in Action website. We are also producing combined units of work, such as an ICT and music unit to supplement the scheme of work for primary.
"We are running the creativity and ICT project - a research initiative which will produce videos for schools on using ICT to support creativity. And we have begun to explore the possibilities of hybrid GCSEs, such as e-media and publishing, ICT and enterprise, and ICT and creativity."
Jill Clare says work is being done to help schools promote more female role models. "In many schools, girls see men teaching the ICT and no matter how well men promote the subject for girls, the perception is wrong. We are interested in foundation degrees for classroom assistants who specialise in ICT. An assistant is likely to be someone's mum and that is a very good role model at home as well as in school."
The QCA is also involved in the Computer Clubs for Girls (CC4G) scheme being piloted in south-east England and due to go nationwide later this year. The scheme helps schools run girls-only computer clubs for 10 to 13-year-olds.
The clubs are run by e-skills UK, the industry body aimed at ensuring the country develops IT skills for the future. The organisation spent three years working with the Department of Trade and Industry to devise the scheme. Terry Watts, e-skills UK chief operating officer, says: "Our research showed that the way girls were introduced to computers was off-putting. Boys tend to want to pull things apart and find out how they work, whereas girls are much more interested in what you can do with computers. We asked girls what would make computing attractive and discovered that if you set appealing targets, girls will move all kinds of obstacles to try and achieve them."
The clubs encourage girls to use ICT creatively and help them develop career skills, such as communication and teamwork. One current theme is celebrity culture, with activities ranging from designing a website for a pop group to creating an Autocue script for a television interview. Girls hone their skills in video and sound editing and learn to use professional software, which might otherwise be too expensive for schools.
Clubs are running in 126 schools, which receive a free package of software and specially developed resources. "Everything is prepared for teachers, so all they have to do is facilitate," says Terry Watts. "Girls love the feeling that the clubs are exclusive - in some schools there is a waiting list to join."
Dominic Tester is head of ICT at Blessed Hugh Faringdon School, Reading, where he runs two after-school CC4G clubs for 100 girls. "We have only been involved for a year, but already we are seeing a difference in the classroom," he says.
"The girls used to be reticent about putting their ideas forward and about making an informed choice about the ICT they used in lessons. Today, they no longer see ICT as an abstract concept, but as a tool that can help them at school and in the world of work. They are confident, enthused and really up for it!"
He says that even if funding for CC4G ceased, the school would want to continue running the clubs. "The girls-only environment makes a huge difference - the whole club ethos is one of sharing and support. " He says that a small group of boys have formed a rival organisation called Computer Clubs for Geezers. With the support of the school's network manager, they meet to take machines apart and learn how they work.
* Always explain the purpose of using ICT in an activity.
* Promote ICT for achieving a goal, rather than for its own sake.
* Blend ICT into creative activities.
* Monitor group work and explore single-gender groupings.
* Find female role models. These could be ICT teachers, ICT-literate assistants or mothers.
* Promote ICT as a way into many exciting careers and not just technical or secretarial work.
The Axios A-Star Awards are based on A-level IT results (Advanced Higher IT in Scotland). The two top-scoring candidates from each exam board take part in a tie-breaker competition to design a website.
www.axiossystems.comastar National Curriculum in Action
www.ncaction.org.uksubjectsictinother.htm Computer Clubs for Girlswww.cc4g.net
Angela McFarlane, professor of education at the University of Bristol Graduate School of Education, has carried out research into children's use of the internet and computer games and her studies provide an insight into girls' and boys' attitudes towards technology. She says: "On average, children use technology three times as much at home as they do at school, so most of our research has been focused on private use. Broadly speaking, boys and girls are doing the same sorts of things on the internet. We are not seeing strongly gendered behaviour.
"Both genders play computer games, but girls don't get obsessive about them, and they are not such an embedded part of girls' social culture.
"Because boys tend to spend more time gaming, you could hypothesise that they are more confident and competent with the technology, and that gives them a head start in the workplace."
She says that even though schools go to great lengths to provide equal access to ICT, there can be surprises in store. "A teacher recently told me that in mixed groups, the girls want the boys to operate the computer - they are quicker and more competent - so the group gets the task done faster.
"Girls are much more strategic, particularly by the time they reach key stage 4. They will choose the most effective strategy to get the job done."