Increasing uptake of computer science

Increasing uptake of computer science

The growing digital economy in the UK continues to require more high-quality computer science graduates, a need that will not be met without more coming through schools. So what might schools do to encourage take-up? Niel McLean from BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, shares some recommendations

This summer’s GCSE results provided an opportunity to reflect on the progress we have made in introducing computing into the curriculum.

Firstly the good news: since the introduction of the new curriculum, the numbers taking GCSE Computer Science have increased each year with over 67 000 or roughly 12 per cent of candidates taking the exam this summer and the majority of secondary schools entering candidates.

However, there are causes for concern.

Firstly, the scale of the year on year increases since 2013 have not been repeated in 2017, rising by just 10 per cent this year, rather than doubling as in previous years. Secondly, the decrease in numbers taking GCSE ICT, which ends this year, have not been compensated for by the increase in Computer Science entries. Thirdly, the proportion of girls taking Computer Science is far too low.

This matters for two reasons. The growing digital economy in the UK continues to require more high-quality computer science graduates, a need that will not be met without more coming through schools.

More importantly, significant numbers, especially girls, are missing out on the great careers available to them and the opportunities to take an active part in shaping the digital world rather than being shaped by it. If we are to open up these opportunities to more young people, it’s essential to work together to increase the take up of Computer science at GCSE. So what might schools do?

Before looking at the practical steps that schools might take, it is worth reviewing the four key contributions that studying computer science makes to a young person’s education.

By developing ‘computational thinking’, the ability to apply the ‘thinking tools’ of computer science such as abstraction, decomposition and algorithms, young people extend their intellectual toolkit.

Programming solutions to problems encourages the development to personal attributes such as tenacity.

An understanding of the underlying concepts helps young people understand the systems that underpin their digital world, and, of course the career opportunities are vast.

A first step in increasing the take up of Computer Science is ensuring that young people, form tutors, the senior leadership team and, of course students and their parents understand these benefits. The Senior Leadership Toolkit available from Computing At Schools (CAS) provides more information on this.

When the purpose of Computer Science is understood, the next two steps are to ensure that students make well informed option choices and that the school has teachers who can respond to any increased demand. Young people choose qualifications they view as interesting, valuable and achievable.

Taking each one of these in turn, young people’s experiences at Key Stage 3 are paramount in shaping their views of how interesting a subject is.

Setting computing teaching in real contexts does a great deal to increase young people’s, interest in the subject, and this is especially the case for girls. Are they taught, even if only in principle, how, for example, the algorithms that sit behind the services they use select the options presented to them? Do they understand, again, if only in principle, the opportunities and issues around new developments such as driverless cars?

Examples of interesting activities can be found on the CAS website, and the employer led materials developed by the Tech Partnership give a real flavour of how computing is shaping the ways we live. For young people and their parents, the value of a qualification is often judged by the career opportunities it opens up. TechFuture Careers, provides young people with an insight into the huge diversity of career opportunities within the tech sector itself, as do visits by tech ‘ambassadors’; people who work in the sector.

Of course, young people will only choose a subject if they feel they can succeed at it. Here the experience at Key Stage 3 is particularly important. Without teachers with a real understanding of how to teach computing effectively, young people will vote with their feet. The Network of Excellence in Computer Science is a DfE funded programme, led by BCS and CAS, aimed at ensuring computing teachers develop their understanding of computer science and, crucially, their skills as teachers. All teachers can join CAS and access the support available from the Network of Excellence.

It takes time to establish a new discipline in schools. The start schools have made is impressive, but, given the scale of the challenge, there is still some way to go to provide all young people with access to the computing education that will able them to take on active roles in the digital world as digital citizens and in the workplace. The next few years will be critical, but the support is out there. Join CAS, engage with the Network of Excellence and look at the resources developed by teachers, employers and others.

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