This year's GCSE results show that there has been a serious drop in the numbers of pupils taking ICT and computing exams - why is that? And what can schools do about it?
Posted on: 24th Sep 2019 by: Gary Henderson
The number of students taking ICT and Computing exams has significantly dropped. The BBC reported a drop from 140,000 students in 2017 to 130,000 in 2018 (BBC, 2018) a drop of 7% drop in student numbers. Ofqual data for 2019 shows Computing numbers increasing from 72,000 to 77,500, an increase of almost 8% (Ofqwal, 2019) however this is against the discontinuation of the ICT GCSE meaning that taken together the Computing and ICT numbers have in fact declined by over 40% between 2018 and 2019. Over the two years 2017 to 2019, the total number of students taking GCSE Computing or ICT has therefore declined by around 45% almost approaching half of all Computing and ICT students.
So why might this be?
The removal of the ICT GCSE has to be considered as the key reason for the reduction. The ICT curriculum in my view had always been seen as a course which provided students with a useful skillset in general IT skills, albeit that lots of people viewed the qualification as of poor quality. In some cases this view may have been correct, and the course may have spent significant curriculum time on designing PowerPoint presentations however delivered well it provided valuable curriculum time to cover topics such as fake news, ethics concerning digital technology and the risks plus benefits of big data. It also provided useful generalist IT skills across a variety of operating systems, office applications and productivity suites. The removal of ICT has now meant that such topics are at the whim of individual schools to decide if or when they might be addressed. The removal of ICT, such a widely known and generalist course, was always going to result in loss of a large number of students especially as the alternative, Computing, is suggestive of a more specific career path which many students wouldn’t consider as appropriate to them.
The shift of curriculum emphasis towards Computing and programmatic thinking was meant to help fill the skills gap which has been growing in the digital and cyber workspaces. This attempt is in some ways enviable however failed to take into consideration the greater specialism which a computing or computer programming-based course involves. Making Computing compulsory within the national curriculum has helped to increase the number of students moving on to take Computing at GCSE. As a result, more students are now aware of what Computing as a term means, what a Computing course involves and the resultant potential career paths, so in this way, it may be a success. However, as a more specialised course, many students who would previously have opted to take ICT as a GCSE do not consider Computing as an option.
So, what do we do next?
My view is that a need exists for a Digital Citizenship or similar programme to exist. This could cover the required general skills regarding different software types, cybersecurity, fake news, ethics and several other topics pertinent to students who will have to live in the increasingly digital society in which we now find ourselves. Such a programme would need to be written from the ground up and therefore would not be burdened by the history which ICT as a curriculum area had.
In the meantime, while we wait for such a subject to be introduced, I think it is up to individual schools to identify whatever time they can in their already busy curriculum to prepare students for an increasingly digital future. For now, this is the best we can do.
ANME Member and Director of IT at Millfield School, also a trained teacher with 20 years’ experience across secondary schools, further education and higher education, both in the UK and Middle East.
 Ofqal, 2019, GCSE Outcomes, 02/09/19, https://analytics.ofqual.gov.uk/apps/GCSE/Outcomes/