Can tomorrow's skills crisis be averted? Students continue to shun tech A-Levels

Interest in the Computing A-Level continues to decline, but will moves by industry and academics make tech qualifications attractive again to the next generation?
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

This year's A-Level Computing and ICT results make grim reading for anyone worried about the UK's future as a technology-powered economy.

After a decade of decline, a mere 3,758 people sat the Computing A-Level — a drop of 1.3 percent on the previous year, accounting for just 0.4 percent of all A-Levels.

The subject also attracts vastly more male than female students: a mere 6.5 percent of entrants are female, 1.3 percentage points lower than last year (although more than 20 percent of girls who took the exam achieved an A or A* grade, compared with 15.4 percent of boys).

The outlook is similar for ICT A-Level, which recorded a decline in entries of six percent — 10,419 people sat the exam, which made up 1.2 percent of all A-Levels, and 38 percent of entrants were female (slightly down from the year before).

According to e-skills UK, the government-backed body which works with employers to deliver the IT skills needed for business, this decline in tech A-Levels is in contrast to an overall rise in interest for science, technology, engineering, and maths subjects as a whole (chemistry, for example, was up 5.25 percent).

Karen Price, chief executive of e-skills UK, warned that the continuing decline in the number of students taking A-Level Computing is disappointing, as is the very low proportion of girls "especially given the rising demand for new entrants to the IT sector", but said work is being done to develop new curricula and qualifications in schools and universities "and dispelling the misperceptions that stop too many talented students" from pursuing a career in technology.

Part of the problem is these A-Levels haven't been very highly prized by universities who have prioritised maths A-Levels over computing. But it also reflects a wider problem: teaching of tech skills has long been patchy in British schools, leaving students without the skills or the understanding needed to pursue a career in technology.

The government recently released a new draft IT curriculum, following the scrapping of the ICT curriculum in September 2012 after the government accepted criticism that the curriculum's focus on office skills was flawed.  

Tom Crick, senior lecturer in Computer Science at Cardiff Metropolitan University and chair in Wales of Computing At School, told ZDNet: "While the year-on-year-decline for A-Level Computing (and ICT) is well known, I think we have bottomed out and we will start to see significant changes over the next few years."

Between 2003 and 2010, the number of students taking computer science at university in the UK fell by 27 percent.

Crick said because of the significant curriculum and qualifications reform across the UK he expected to see increasing numbers of students taking GCSEs in computing and computer science.

"This will certainly have an effect on the number of schools offering A-Level Computing, plus the students taking it. Also, most of the examination boards are updating the A-Level curriculum in light of the new GCSEs and wider A-Level reform."

And while universities have been somewhat indifferent to A-Level Computing, Crick said this attitude was changing, with more than 70 universities engaged in changing computer science teaching in schools, and added: "We want to see more pupils studying it from primary school through to GCSE and A-Level.

"With regards to the gender split in computing, this is still disappointing, but will only be fixed (in the longer term) by the curriculum and qualifications reform — it has to start at primary school so it isn't seen as a geeky boys' subject."

However, fixing the curriculum doesn't address one of the other big skills problems — employers have outsourced and offshored so many entry-level jobs that it's very hard for any newly qualified graduates to find jobs.

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