Girls taking GCSE computing rises for second year in a row

The number of girls choosing to take GCSE computing has risen for the second year in a row after a few years of falling numbers.

It comes as the number of overall students choosing to take the subject also showed a year-on-year (YoY) rise and has been on the rise for the past three years – 90,558 students took the exam this year, compared with 81,120 last year, and 79,964 in 2021 – though the number did suffer a drop between 2019 and 2020 from 80,027 to 78,459 respectively.  

But there is a lot standing in the way of girls choosing a career in technology, with barriers to interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) starting young, including a lack of visible and accessible role models, negative stereotypes surrounding the types of people involved in the technology sector, and a lack of inclusive culture in the sector in general.

Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president EMEA at Skillsoft, said: “Historically, negative stereotypes have led many girls to believe they lack the natural aptitude to thrive in technology. And while the increase in girls taking tech subjects at GCSE this year suggests some of these prehistoric attitudes have been squashed, evidence shows girls’ interest in tech continues to wane as they age, even once they’ve entered the working world. We can’t afford to let this happen.” 

The growth in the number of girls choosing to take the subject is significant, from 17,264 last year, to 19,061 this year – an increase of 1,797.

But the number of girls taking GCSE level computing has been fluctuating for some time – in both 2020 and 2021, the number of girls taking GCSE computing dropped YoY – from 17,158 in 2019 to 16,919 in 2020, and then to 16,549 in 2021.

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Rachel Phillips, vice-president of UK&I at Okta, said: “We all know there is work to do when it comes to increasing diversity in those studying STEM subjects at all levels. As a woman working at a senior level in tech, I am highly aware of the need to improve female representation in STEM subjects at GCSE level and beyond.

“STEM subjects and related careers do have a diversity problem, and this needs to be taken seriously, as a lack of diversity in any industry can be crippling.”

An increase in role models, a “systemic change to the education system”, and cross-collaboration between schools, industry and the government were just some of the suggestions made by experts when it comes to upping the diversity of girls in STEM.

Much like for A-levels, the results table published by the Joint Council of Qualifications this year compared results from years 2019, 2022 and 2023, omitting results from pandemic years 2020 and 2021 where assessments were not exam-based.

When compared with 2019, higher achieving computing grades have increased, with 24.6% of student achieving at least an A/7 grade, compared with 21.7% in 2019, and 64.8% this year achieving at least a 4/C grade compared with 62.7% in 2019.

Girls once again outperformed boys at all grade levels in 2023, with 30% of girls achieving at least an A/7 grade in computing compared with 23.1% of boys, and 71.4% girls getting at least a C/4 grade as opposed to 63.1% of boys.

But when compared with pandemic years, grades have been slowly on the decline – those receiving at least an A/7 grade in computing dropped YoY this year, from 34.1% to 24.6%, and the previous year saw a decrease too, from 39.7% in 2021.

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The current computing curriculum was introduced in the early 2010s in an attempt to teach children from a young age about essential computing concepts such as algorithms and computational thinking, but as this year’s GCSE results come out, many have asked about the ongoing development of the curriculum going forward, especially with both the pace of technology change and the ongoing diversity and technology skills gaps.

Hannah Birch, managing director of digital at Node4, said: “Despite the continued growth of the technology industry, and new innovations like generative AI and large language models taking the world by storm, a huge STEM skills gap remains. In fact, 50% of companies are struggling to hire and retain a skilled workforce across the STEM sectors.

“But I am pleased to see that the future is looking brighter, with 11.6% more students, and a 10.4% rise in girls, studying computing compared to last year. As a nation that is in desperate need of these skills, this is fantastic to see. 

“It will be interesting to see how the computing GCSE curriculum changes to keep pace with important developments in technology and what they mean for the roles available and skills required for a career in the industry.”

This is not the first time the computing curriculum’s longevity has been questioned, especially since technology is ever-evolving, as is the UK’s skills landscape.

When it comes to other STEM subjects, there was a YoY increase in girls taking subjects such as engineering, maths, physics and chemistry, all of which saw an increase in overall students choosing the subject at GCSE level.

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