Where are all the students?

Sep 05, 2018

Miles Berry

England introduced computer science to its national curriculum back in 2014, ensuring that all pupils from age 5 to 16 in local authority supported would be taught to program and introduced to computational thinking. As well as this change to the curriculum, there are also a couple of qualifications in computer science: a GCSE taken at age 16, which I think is broadly comparable to AP CS Principles (although the programming project currently doesn’t carry any marks), and an A Level, taken at age 18, and similar to AP CS A (although the choice of language is left to schools). Whilst National Curriculum computing in England is about CS (and IT and digital literacy) for all, these exams are, at least at present, CS for some.

As these are public exams, the results for each student taking these are reported to the UK government’s Department for Education, who then have made an anonymised set of the results available to bona fide researchers. My Roehampton colleague Pete Kemp, assisted by me and Dr Billy Wong of the University of Reading, has done the number crunching on this data, allowing us to produce The Roehampton Annual Computing Education Report (TRACER). We published our analysis of the 2017 results (ie those from the exams taken last summer) back in June: you can download a copy from bit.ly/TRACER17; it’s our hope that the analysis can provide some insight into how well computer science education is going in English schools, at least in terms of students taking these optional, elective qualifications.

At GCSE, more than half of English schools were offering CS as an option. As these are typically larger schools, this means that a random 16 year old has a 76% chance of finding being in a school where CS is offered: considering how recently this qualification was introduced, this is quite some achievement. However, less than 12% of students take the qualification: these students are more likely than not to be male, academically strong, white and from affluent homes: there’s much that we still need to do to address diversity in CS education in the UK. Students are typically getting lower grades in CS than they are in their other subjects; I don’t think this is surprising, as they’ve not studied it for as long - for this cohort, it had only been on the national curriculum for a year before they started their GCSE course.

At A Level, the CS still seems a niche subject, despite being directly relevant to academic study across the STEM disciplines and to many routes into employment at 18. The qualification was only offered by 36% of schools and colleges, with under 3% of students taking the subject. The class size in these schools and colleges (averaging just seven students) might not be financially viable in the long run. Diversity is a big issue for this qualification: across the country, there were only 816 entries from girls (ie less than 10%). Again, students are likely to come from relatively affluent homes, but unlike at GCSE, many of those taking the A Level are not academically strong candidates, judging by their overall performance. Interestingly, a disproportionate number of of these students are registered as having special educational needs.

The full report goes into some of the variation between school types and localities that these overall figures match: I’ve no doubt that if all schools could learn from the practice in the best we’d soon see increases in both uptake and achievement in CS. On the website you’ll find some cool, interactive maps showing how uptake and achievement at GCSE varies across the country.

This summer saw the last students entered for the old ‘ICT’ qualifications, which was really quite different in scope and ambition from those for CS. The removal of these qualifications might well result in fewer 14-18 year olds studying aspects of computing: personally, I’d rather see a broad, inclusive qualification in all aspects of computing at 16+ than the narrow focus on CS which seems to be what we have now.

Originally published as ‘Where are all the students? Computer Science Qualifications in England’ in CSTA’s The Voice