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13 June 2023

England's computing curriculum could be 'missing the mark' to engage girls

A reform of England’s national computing curriculum could encourage more young people – especially girls – to participate in the subject and aspire to a career in the field, new research suggests.

Schoolgirl learns computer science at desktop computer

A study by King’s College London and the University of Reading, published in the International Journal of Science Education and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found the current school system is potentially excluding the interests of underrepresented students and furthering the gender imbalance within the computer science workforce.

Principal investigator Dr Peter Kemp, Senior Lecturer in Computing Education at King’s College London, said their findings are a “concern”.

There is no doubt that computer science is valuable for individual, national and global prosperity,” he said. “However, when these findings are viewed with the knowledge of the current gender imbalance in computer science, from school to the workplace, this should be of concern for us all.

Principal investigator Dr Peter Kemp, Senior Lecturer in Computing Education at King’s

Researchers analysed questionnaire data from 4,983 secondary school students in England and found that among those who chose to study GCSE Computer Science, girls were 42% less likely to aspire to be a computer scientist compared to boys.

The current GCSE has a strong emphasis on technical skills, especially coding. However, many young people said they cannot see themselves in a future career involving these skills.

Experts propose that a reform of the GCSE qualification and the wider curriculum, along with other strategies such as encouraging parental support, could help achieve greater gender parity in computing.

Dr Kemp added: “While digital skills are increasingly important for future jobs and the economy, the current GCSE is focused on computer science and developing programming skills, and this seems to deter some young people, in particular girls, from taking up the subject.”

Dr Kemp and his co-investigators suggest that broadening the GCSE and the curriculum to include more creative computing education, such as digital art (practices that use digital technology as part of the creative process), would appeal to more students who want to develop digital skills for their future careers but do not see the relevance of the current curriculum and GCSE Computer Science.

Dr Billy Wong, Associate Professor at the University of Reading and co-investigator, said: “Students are not a homogenous group, and the current computing curriculum may not be aligned with the diverse interests, aspirations and backgrounds of young people.”

Dr Jessica Hamer, Research Associate at King’s College London and co-investigator, said: “This research is shedding much-needed light on a phenomenon that we knew existed but have so far failed to address adequately – the uptake of girls in secondary school level computing in England. We hope it will lead to more evidence-based policies and practices, which will eventually enable more young people to see digital jobs as a possibility for them.”

As well as examining differences in gender, the researchers also considered the impact that other non-demographic characteristics may have on a child’s aspiration to become a computer scientist. For example, if the student has family support and a positive view of people who work in computer science, the study shows they are more likely to want to pursue a career in the field.

Dr Emily Tanner, Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “The growing demand for digital and computing skills presents an opportunity for today's students to access rewarding careers in the future. By identifying the barriers, this research will help to improve access to those opportunities including for girls and other under-represented groups.”

This study is part of the ongoing SCARI (Subject Choice, Attainment and Representation) Computing research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, which explores the factors that explain the lack of participation by girls in secondary school level computing subjects in England.

The research team also included Meggie Copsey-Blake, Research Associate on the project and current doctoral student at the University of Reading.

The full research paper; 'Who wants to be a computer scientist? The computing aspirations of students in English secondary schools' is available online now.

In this story

Peter Kemp2071

Senior Lecturer in Computing Education

Jess Hamer

Research Associate