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Why the Drop in UK Students Taking GCSE and A-level Computer Science is a Problem

Why the Drop in UK Students Taking GCSE and A-level Computer Science is a Problem

For the past couple of years, talk about the skills shortage is never far from the headlines. It’s a problem that isn’t going away and by all accounts, it is getting worse.

For example, there is a decline in the number of people taking computing qualifications at second level education.

The 2017 figures for the number of pupils achieving General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and A-level computing qualifications are pretty dismal. Just 12% of UK students took Computer Science at GCSE, and only 2.7% sat the A-level exam. What’s unfortunately predictable is just how few of this small cohort, just 20% for the GCSE exam and 10% for A-level, were female. And this is despite an increasing number of schools offering the subject.

I’m not even sure where to begin with these figures.

We all know that the workforce of today, let alone tomorrow, will need digital skills. The fact that so few are pursuing them at this level, and even fewer are female, spells disaster for the future of not just the corporate landscape as a whole but the very future of women in the workplace.

Naturally, this news is raising eyebrows. The British Computer Society is warning that we could see a sharp decline in the numbers studying computing at third level.

We may never fully understand why interest in the subject is waning and the rather unpalatable fact is that these skills are the most in-demand and may have a detrimental impact on the economy if left unchecked.

The current digital skills gap

This year, according to a CompTIA survey, a third of UK tech executives said it would get more challenging to recruit new technology workers. “With employer demand for tech talent routinely outstripping supply, the year ahead will force more organisations to rethink their approaches to recruiting, training and talent management,” said Graham Hunter, CompTIA’s vice president for skills certification in Europe and the Middle East.

And it’s a similar story elsewhere. A 2017 Tech Nation survey found that over 50% of the UK’s digital community experience a shortage of highly skilled employees. A direct result of which is that the select few with the desired skills are now asking for more money making it extremely difficult for smaller businesses to compete for talent.

What can we do to reverse the trend?

What all this means is that we have a skills deficit that is only going to get worse since we are not building a pipeline of talent to fill the gap, let alone prepare for all the other outcomes of the digital transformation of the workplace. Already, by some estimates, the skill shortages are costing business more than £2bn a year in higher salaries, recruitment costs and temporary staffing bills, so we can only imagine the cost as the gap widens.

Employers will look to corporate learning programmes as a means of filling the holes in their workforce. I think the way organisations hire and develop their employees will change yet again as companies struggle to find a digital workforce.

In the meantime, I think we need to discover why so few students are taking Computer Science. What is the objection? Is it the exam? The curriculum? The misconception that computing is only for boys?  And then we must work hard to convince these students why regardless of their chosen career, an understanding and familiarity with digital skills are essential.

Take the first step and see what the subject is like for yourself.  Start a 14-day free trial of Percipio, Skillsoft’s award-winning intelligent learning experience platform, to sample our IT Skills and Certification Training portfolio.


Trish Burridge is the Director of Customer Success for Skillsoft, EMEA.

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