Can we encourage a greater uptake of GCSE Computer Science?

By Eleanor Overland. Posted

Decisions about future studies and careers can be daunting

The number of pupils — particularly girls — taking computer science GCSEs remains much lower than many other subjects. Eleanor Overland wonders if the options process itself is the key to unlocking change

It can be very difficult for youngsters to make informed choices about the subjects they would like to study at GCSE level. GCSEs are the qualifications undertaken by 14- to 16-year-olds in schools and colleges in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. These choices are made even more difficult by some schools offering a reduced period for Key Stage 3 (ages 11–14), and others offering computing as a carousel subject, whereby students only study the subject for a few weeks each year.

Many computing teachers would like to increase the numbers of pupils, particularly girls, choosing computer science as an option. Currently, however, the options process — the process by which students choose subject options for their GCSE exams — is harder than ever to plan. 

This article explores research in computing options and highlights potential actions schools could take in order to increase future numbers. While the research discussed in this article is based on findings from the UK, teachers in other countries will likely find similarities with their own students and options processes; and while the recommendations at the end of the article draw on UK examples, they may be broadly applied.

What the research found

The research on computing options explored in this article builds on the important analysis carried out in the Roehampton report. This report is published each year by the University of Roehampton and examines the number of students who achieve GCSE and A level qualifications in computing. The headlines indicate that approximately 16 percent of eligible Key Stage 4 students (ages 14–16) take computer science GCSEs. Only 22 percent of this cohort are girls. Additionally, there is under-representation of students from poorer backgrounds and some BAME groups, especially Black students. For more on this report, see the Raspberry Pi research seminar presented by Dr Peter Kemp and Dr Billy Wong

To explore some of the stories behind the statistics, Professor Cathy Lewin and I did some research with pupils and teachers. This research took place prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and we visited two contrasting schools in North West England. We surveyed all pupils after they had taken their options and interviewed a selection — including both those who had and had not opted to take computer science. We also interviewed the heads of department and teachers, and explored the options information materials. The pupils also completed mind maps and drawing activities to explore their wider perceptions of computing. 

Both schools had secured healthy numbers of pupils for their GCSE computer science classes, but would have liked to recruit more. In line with the national trend, both schools had far more boys than girls choosing the subject. It is not possible to present the full analysis here, but I will summarise two key themes that emerged from the data.

The influence of authoritative voices

Pupils were highly influenced by advice and by the experience of those around them, particularly older siblings or other family members. They were less influenced by their friends than teachers expected. Teachers also contributed to their decisions, with one pupil explaining that she chose computer science because her teacher told her she was good at it, and another citing a “persuasive assembly by the head of department”. 

Career plans played an important part in the decision-making process. Many students had already identified their preferred career and believed that computing was not relevant to the path they had chosen. One girl planned to set up her own fashion company, but intended to employ others to do the technology side of things. 

The positioning of computer science

Some pupils found that the option blocks prevented them from selecting computer science, because it clashed with other favourite subjects. “I really want to do art, but really want to do computer science … it was really difficult, and stressful as well.” Others talked about English Baccalaureate (EBacc) requirements, and how computer science did not contribute towards meeting these, although it was in the same option block as other EBacc subjects. 

One school focused especially on pupils in higher-ability mathematics sets, promoting the subject more proactively to this cohort, although they did not prevent other students from taking up the course. The survey in this school identified a high number of pupils who did not take computer science as they felt it would be too difficult for them. 

Gender perceptions were particularly complex. Many pupils described computer science as a subject open to both boys and girls, but also said that a lot more boys than girls chose it as a subject. The majority explained this by the factors already discussed. Some did comment that subjects are gendered — girls study dance and drama, boys study mathematics and science. Both schools are highly multicultural, and some pupils explained that gender expectations differed in some cultures and families. 

Some pupils linked gender discussions to ability, one explaining: “Computer scientists are very smart, or they could be an average person who knows their stuff and is into it.” She explained that boys are more likely to play computer games and be “into computers”, so could take computer science as an option even if they were “average”, whereas the girls needed to be “very smart”.

Recommendations

This research focused on only two schools, yet revealed the similarities and differences between them. Teachers may wish to consider some of the following recommendations for their own schools when encouraging uptake of computer science as a subject:

  • A short online survey can be useful to find out why current Key Stage 4 pupils have and haven’t opted to take a computer science GCSE. It may reveal reasons specific to a school setting, perhaps different to those given above. Teachers can then plan specific actions to support their own pupils.

  • It’s important to ensure that Key Stage 3 is memorable, particularly if a setting provides computing as a carousel subject, or relies on non-specialist staff to deliver at Key Stage 3. It may be useful to review schemes of learning, particularly prior to the options process, and ensure that these lessons are engaging and link to computer science at GCSE.

  • Giving pupils self-belief can make a big difference. Is a GCSE in computer science open to pupils of all abilities in your school? If teachers appear to be selective and emphasise how difficult computer science is as a subject, they could deter other pupils who are capable of success. There are lots of resources available to encourage resilience and self-belief in computing which may be useful to explore, especially when it comes to supporting girls.

  • It can be useful for schools to review their options structures. Are pupils being forced to choose between computer science and another of their favourite subjects? Are pupils following the EBacc requirements unable to opt for computer science? Perhaps just moving subjects into different option blocks could increase pupil numbers. This is something teachers may want to look at and discuss with their leadership team.

  • Making careers education a regular feature of Key Stage 3 computing will help pupils to see the relevance of the subject in their future. Regular signposting to computing jobs, and highlighting the contribution of computing to other professions, can support pupil understanding. Display materials, guest speakers from industry, alumni, and parents working in computing can all really help with this.

  • Teachers can share their successes. If a teacher already does something that effectively recruits pupils to take a GCSE in computer science, I encourage them to share it at a local Computing at School (CAS) community network meeting so that other schools can use the ideas

Online ideas to support options

  • Host exciting computing competitions or projects to get pupils involved in the subject before they choose their options 

  • Ask current GCSE students and alumni to make videos about what they enjoy in their computer science course

  • Create an online gallery, such as a SlideShare, of GCSE classwork and projects

  • Create a presentation targeted at parents and carers to provide information about computer science as a subject, further study, and careers

  • Provide links to computing careers websites, especially those that promote a broader representation of people

  • Ask local employers and higher education providers to tell pupils why computer science is important and what opportunities are available; perhaps you could put together a panel and host an online computing  careers event

  • Share your ideas with your local CAS community so they can make use of them too


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