A Levels: More females opt for computing, but gender gulf persists

As the number of students opting to study computer science in the UK rises, the subject has the biggest gender gap in the curriculum.

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As students across the UK receive the results from the first wave of A Level exams since 2019, data from the UCAS (The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) shows that the number of female students being placed on computer science degree courses has risen by 16% since 2021.

Acceptances onto computer science degree courses have also seen the second largest percentage increase of any subject, with 24,900 students already securing a place at university to study the subject, up 6.7% since the previous year.

Ofqual data shows that the number of female students studying computing at A-Level has increased since 2021, up 17.8% to 2,245. Furthermore, female students also received a higher percentage of top grades in the subject, with 38.8% receiving grade A or above, while 34.4% of male students achieved the same.

However, with the number of male students studying computing at A Level sitting at 12,565 this year, the subject had the single biggest gender gap at A Level, closely followed by physics, maths and ICT.

This trend is also borne out at degree level where, despite the significant increase in female students opting to study computer science, male students still outnumber their female counterparts, with applicant numbers sitting at 20,080 and 4,830 respectively.

Gareth Stockdale, CEO of the non-profit Micro:bit Educational Foundation—an organisation that works closely with schools and educators to implement the computing curriculum at the youngest end of the spectrum—said that it was definitely a positive to see the numbers trending upwards. He noted that there’s been a concerted effort in the UK from organisations such as Micro:bit, the British Computing Society, and the National Centre for Computing Education to have the number of A Level students rise from 4,171 in 2014 to almost 15,000 this year.

“The curriculum was only launched in 2014, so as a subject, it's fairly new and nascent. To have this sort of take up and receive more applicants than subjects like French, for example, it's great that it's becoming established like that,” Stockdale said.

Despite the record student numbers, however, the gulf between male and female students is still closing far too slowly, Stockdale said.

“Many girls just see computer science as a predominantly male industry and it's difficult to for them to see a space for themselves,” Stockdale said. “I think it's that sort of old adage, that you can't be what you can't see, and the lack of female role models and depictions of women in tech roles or how they're covered in the media shows that we still have a long way to go.”

Stockdale was keen to point out that the gender gap doesn’t exist because girls don't enjoy computer science or aren't good at it—generally girls regularly outperform their male counterparts in all STEM subjects at GCSE and A Level, according to the Women in Stem initiative.

“It's also to do with the overarching society's views of digital skills and computing, that they’re just for people that want to go on and become computer or software engineers,” Stockdale said. “I think there's a job to be done in educating school leadership, governments and parents about the importance of these skills. That way, girls, who generally perform better academically and therefore might have more choices about what they want to do in the future, will have a broader view of why computing is important, versus the narrow view that it will only allow them to become a software developer, which isn't the only thing you can do with a computing degree.”

Few primary school teachers have computing background

Research published by Micro:bit earlier this year found that at primary school (for students aged 5-11), despite very few teachers having a background or qualification in computing, a high proportion of them are responsible for teaching the subject in their school. Additionally, those who do teach it at a primary school level are most likely to be women under the age of 35 who lack confidence in computing.

In the UK, students pick their GCSE subjects when they are 13 or 14, and those decisions can often set them on a path that can be difficult to deviate from, due to degree subjects often specifying subject requirements as a condition of acceptance.

Having conversations with younger children about the options that are open, Stockdale says, will allow them to make a more informed decision when the time does eventually come for them to streamline their learning.

“All we're doing as an organisation is trying to get children excited about the possibility of using technology and what it can do for you,” he said. “We're hoping that our continued effort will build that pipeline as we go through the next five to 10 years.”

However, not everyone excels academically or feels able to take on the financial burden that attending university brings with it—a YouGov poll from 2021 found that 65% of Britons think higher education in the UK is unaffordable.

As a result, Stockdale says, while the appetite for further education is not going away, as shown by the record number of students who applied to university this year, he’s glad to see more options are becoming available for people who don’t want to take an academic route into the industry.

“[Micro:bit] works with partners to try to find as many different ways for people to take their first steps with technology. I think we should be encouraged that people can now choose [newly introduced vocational qualifications] T Levels or degree apprenticeships or any number of different routes that can help them gain those much-needed practical skills in computing,” he said.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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