The number of students in England choosing computing as a GCSE subject has fallen in 2020, despite growing in popularity in recent years.
Computing at GCSE level in England had 75,730 candidates in 2020 compared with 77,407 last year, and it was not the only science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subject to see a drop in candidates.
Biology, chemistry and physics GCSEs also saw a drop in candidates, although there was a significant increase in the number of students taking a GCSE science double award.
Many worry about what this drop in numbers might mean for the technology industry’s already growing skills gap.
Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Skillsoft, said: “As if to counterbalance the fantastic news last week that the number of girls taking computing A-level this year increased by more than a fifth, the GCSE results paint a very different picture. Despite a major drive to encourage younger students to pursue STEM subjects, there is a 2.1% reduction of all students that have taken computing this year.
“There are increasing numbers of female role models who are demonstrating STEM subjects are not just for boys – from Countdown’s math prodigy Rachel Riley, to the Oxford University vaccine team lead, Sarah Gilbert. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough; there is still far more to do in the classroom.”
Whether or not the UK can sustainably train talent to fill the technology skills gap has been a concern for a long time, especially as Brexit has threatened the UK’s overseas talent pipeline.
Vinous Ali, associate director for policy at techUK, said it’s important to ensure young people understand what opportunities could be available to them off the back of a computing GCSE, while Dominic Harvey, director at CWJobs, pointed out that the sector needs to do as much as it can to ensure people are gaining these skills and considering tech roles.
Harvey said: “It is important that we continue to promote the benefits to students about taking STEM subjects. The UK has long struggled to reduce its skills gap and with technology becoming an ever-increasing part of our daily lives during these strange times, the demand for these skills in the UK tech market is only set to grow, representing a great chance for young people to build a promising career in the sector.”
Grades for GCSE computing in England were higher this year when compared with last year – 8.7% of candidates were awarded a 9 in 2020, the highest grade available, as opposed to 3.9% in 2019.
Every level of grade awarded for GCSE computing this year was higher than last year, with 33.5% gaining a 7 or above in 2020 compared with 21.6% in 2019, and 80.1% gaining at least a 4 as opposed to 62.2% in 2019.
But whether grades from this year are really comparable to 2019 is a subject of debate, as the coronavirus outbreak forced education providers to cancel exams and teach students remotely.
Originally A-level and GCSE grades were calculated using a combination of data including mock exam results, coursework grades, teacher predictions and centre assessment grades (CAGs) submitted by schools and colleges.
Statistical standardisation models were then used alongside these figures, and data from previous years’ results, to ensure grades reflected student performance without predictions being more optimistic than in previous years.
It was then decided to award students with either grades calculated this way or with centre assessment grades, depending on which was higher.
Using an algorithm to determine people’s grades was thought to be controversial by many due to the high possibility to introducing algorithmic bias into the process.
Jack Ridgway, senior developer at tech firm Hyve Managed Hosting, said: “Predictive analytics can lead to uncertainty when you don’t take into consideration new trends and other variables; in this case, individual student progress throughout their last year of studies.
“It is essential when using existing data that you take into consideration new data showing growth and changes to produce a fair outcome.”
When it was announced that students would be receiving the highest result of either their centre assessed grade or the calculated grade, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “This has been an extraordinarily difficult year for young people who were unable to take their exams.
“We worked with Ofqual to construct the fairest possible model, but it is clear that the process of allocating grades has resulted in more inconsistency and unfairness than can be reasonably resolved through an appeals process.
“We now believe it is better to offer young people and parents certainty by moving to teacher-assessed grades for both A and AS level and GCSE results. I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents, but I hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve.”