Cracking the code: why girls turn away from computing

It is the “must-have” subject for today’s students – one that’s backed by the biggest tech companies in the world, from Google to Microsoft. But despite all the excitement around computing, girls just don’t seem to be plugging in.

This summer’s GCSE and A-level results show a sharp rise in pupils opting for computing, with more than double the number of candidates choosing to study the subject at key stage 4 compared with last year.

But the increase in overall entries hides an uncomfortable fact: the proportion of girls studying computing qualifications remains stubbornly low, at just 8 per cent of this year’s A-level entries in the subject. That amounts to a mere 456 girls, or 0.1 per cent of the entire A-level cohort.

Optimists point out that this is an improvement on last year, when only 314 girls took A-level computing. The rise at GCSE has been healthier, from 2,568 girls in 2014 to 5,678 in 2015. And experts point out that it is still early days, as the new national computing curriculum has been taught for only a year.

But although the subject appears to enthuse girls in primaries, where after-school clubs are often 40 per cent female, something seems to go wrong at secondary school. And it is not that all technology subjects turn off girls. The gender balance at ICT is much more equal: girls make up 42 per cent and 35 per cent of GCSE and A-level entrants respectively.

The new qualifications take a more technical approach, with a greater focus on coding. Could it be that computing is at risk of becoming, like physics, an overwhelmingly male subject? If so, Google, one of the most active supporters of the government’s decision to introduce a new curriculum, is confident that will not be the case for long.

The tech giant believes more girls will choose the subject in years to come. “The syllabus has changed and we haven’t started to see the longer-term impact of that yet,” Emma Burrows, a Google software engineer, told TES. “You will see more girls once those who studied the subject at key stages 1 and 2 progress to GCSE.

“Before this, the syllabus was still really boring, which was a big factor [in girls not taking the subject]. A stigma has been attached to tech subjects like this for the last 20 years and it takes time to move the needle.”

Back in 2012, former education secretary Michael Gove announced that he was scrapping “boring” ICT lessons in favour of the more “rigorous” computing curriculum. Yet ICT remains significantly more popular than computing.

Christine Swan, a master teacher with the subject association Computing at School, and a specialist leader in education at the Stourport High School and Sixth Form College, said: “Too often, computing and computer science is seen as a boy’s subject. There are these big social barriers we need to break down.”

Girls’ GCSE options were often influenced by their peers’ decisions, Ms Swan added, so it was important to highlight the opportunities that computing could offer to women in the future.

“When it comes to computing classes, we try to sit them together and put them together as a group of girls,” she said. “It is a barrier we need to break through. In my school, it is not for the lack of female staff. I am a female computer science specialist and all the staff in my department are female.”

Schools are increasingly offering after-school clubs in programming and coding, such as those run by the charity Code Club, which caters for pupils aged 9-11. According to the organisation, 40 per cent of its participants are girls, which suggests that younger children are attracted to the subject.

“We find girls are as interested as boys. The question is why they lose that interest, because it is there at key stages 1 and 2,” said Maria Quevedo, director of Code Club UK. “We let them experience coding in a very creative environment. They can create whatever they like – games, apps, whatever – and they learn by doing.”

However, Miles Berry, principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton, believes this year’s GCSE and A-level numbers are worth celebrating, when compared with recent years.

“While there’s certainly no place for complacency, particularly in regards to the take-up among girls, the numbers are a significant improvement on last year, certainly at GCSE,” Mr Berry said. “There is still a lot of work to be done, but groups like Apps for Good and Young Rewired State, which have 40 or 50 per cent girls, show there is interest.”

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