Archive for August 2, 2021

Why aren’t more girls in the UK choosing to study computing and technology? Guest blog post by Peter Kemp

The Guardian raised the question in the title in this article in June. Pat Yongpradit sent it to me and Peter Kemp, and Peter’s response was terrific — insightful and informed by data. I asked him if I could share it here as a guest post, and he graciously agreed.

We’ve just started a 3 year project, scaricomp, that aims to look at girls’ performance and participation in computer science in English schools. There’s not much to see at the moment, as we started in April, but we’re hoping to sample 5000+ students across schools with large numbers of students taking CS and/or high numbers of females in the CS cohorts. I’ll let you know when we have some analysis in hand.

You reference The Guardian article’s quote: “In 2019, 17,158 girls studied computer science, compared with the 20,577 girls who studied ICT in 2018”. It’s worth noting that the 2018 ICT figure was the end of the line for ICT, numbers in previous years were much higher, and the female figure was actually ~40% of the overall ICT entries, whilst it represents about 20% of the GCSE CS cohort, i.e. females were proportionally better represented in ICT than CS. For a fuller picture of the changing numbers and demographics in English computing, see slide 8 of this, or the video presentation). It’s also worth noting that since the curriculum change in 2012/13 we’ve lost the majority of time dedicated to teaching computing (including CS) at age 14-16, I’ve argued that this has had a disproportionate impact on girls and poorer students (page 45-48).

To add a bit of context from England: Students typically pick 8-10 subjects for GCSE, though their ‘options’ might be limited. Most schools will insist that students take Maths, English Language, English Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and often: French or German, and History or Geography. This leaves students with one or two actual ‘options’. Many schools are also imposing entry requirements on GCSE CS, only letting the high achieving students (often focusing on maths) onto the course; this will likely have an impact in access to the curriculum for poorer students who are less likely to achieve well in mathematics. Why don’t females pick CS in the same way they picked ICT? This might well be linked to curriculum, role models, contextualisation etc.

One of the reasons given for the curriculum change in 2012 was that students were being “bored to death” by ICT, with ICT generally being the application of software products to solve problems and the implication of technology on the world. The application of technology to the world lends itself to the contextualisation of the curriculum and the assessment materials. There was a lot of project-based assessment with real world scenarios for students to engage with, e.g. making marketing materials for businesses, using spreadsheets to organise holiday bookings etc https://web.archive.org/web/20161130183550if_/http://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/computer-science-and-it/gcse/information-and-communication-technology-4520) . The GCSE CS is a different beast. It can be contextualised, but this is probably more difficult to do as there is an awful lot of material to cover and the assessment methodology is entirely exam based and on paper for the largest exam boards. Anecdotally we hear of schools cutting down on programming time on computers, as the exam is handwritten.

Data looking at what females ‘liked’ in the old ICT curriculum is quite limited, but what does exist places some of the ‘non-CS’ elements quite highly. So, the actual curriculum content might have a part to play here. Having taught ICT (and CS) for many years, most students I knew really enjoyed the ICT components. I’d argue that the pre-reform discourse around ICT being: “useless, boring, easy”, CS being: “useful, exciting, rigorous” was an easy political position to take, and not reflective of reality where schools had competent teachers. We now find ourselves in a position where we probably have a little too much CS, and not enough digital literacy / ICT for the general needs of students. I and people like Miles Berry (p49) have argued for more generalist qualification which maintains elements of CS. Though there appears to be little political will to make this happen.

To add another suggestions as to why we’re seeing females disengaging, within the English context, we see females substantially underachieving at GCSE in comparison to their other subjects and males of similar ‘abilities’ (ability here being similar grade profiles in other subjects). Why this is remains unclear, we see similar under achievement in Maths and Physics. My fear is that encouraging females to take CS might lead them to having their self-efficacy knocked and therefore make them less likely to pursue further study or a career in tech. We also found that females from poorer backgrounds were more likely to pick GCSE CS than their middle-class peers, we speculate that this might be the result of different cultural/family pressures and a keener engagement with the ’employability’ and ‘good pay’ discourse that often surrounds the representation of studying CS, however true this might be for these groups in reality. More research on the above coming soon through scaricomp.

Additionally, in terms of the UK picture, you’ll probably want to check in with Sue Sentance and the Gender Balance in Computing Project. One of their theories for the decline in computing is that CS is being timetabled at the same time as other (generally) more attractive subjects for females. I’m not sure if they’ve started this part of the research yet, but it’s worth checking in. They are running interventions across the country, but I don’t believe that they are trying to do a nationally representative survey.

August 2, 2021 at 7:00 am Leave a comment


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