If you want to go on and study computer science at university, you would think that a Computing A Level would stand you in good stead. However, the focus for most university selection criteria is on mathematics and sciences. At the top of the pile, one Oxbridge college – Trinity College, Cambridge – considers the subject ‘useful’ for its computer science degree, but you must have three A levels in maths and the sciences as well. Russell Group universities do not consider it a ‘facilitating subject’ either.
However, posting on The Student Room forum, one computer science admissions tutor believes the subject is useful way of testing whether or not computer science is for you – before you plunge in to a degree.
Computing seems to be considered a more difficult option than Information and Communication Technology (ICT) A level. Put simply, computing features more complicated programming and coding subject matter, rather than simply using the programs that others have designed. Yet, interestingly, the numbers of students who took Computing A Level this year rose by an outstanding 11%, while those sitting ICT dropped by 9%. Admittedly, the numbers are small: only 4,171 students took the Computing exam and 9,479 ICT, but this is perhaps yet another shift – and there have been many this year – which indicates that students are going for more rigorous subjects. There was no Computing GCSE until 2010, so some students are now able to gain a grounding before they take on the A Level. Since computer science GCSEs will be included in the science element of the EBacc peformance measure for the first time from 2014, more pupils may take the GCSE and be led on to the A Level.
Computing is almost exclusively taken by male entrants: only 7.5% who sat the exam in 2014 were female. A study undertaken at the University of Southampton in 2011 showed that through GCSE to A level, female pupils felt the computing and ICT were taught boringly and they could not see its relevance to them. Girls found the male-dominated atmosphere in computing classes off-putting, and had a perception that working in the IT industry was only for geeks.
Yet ICT is a National Curriculum ‘foundation’ subject for 14 to 16 year olds. The new ‘EBacc’ measurement of school performance now includes computer science as one of the subjects which can be counted towards a pupil’s level of attainment. Yet, particularly at A Level, there is a lot to be done to convince girls that computing can be for them. It is not only about equality of access, but also because the lack of female entrants to the business contributes to the huge shortage of science and computing professionals facing the UK. A recent study by the UK Council of Professors and Heads of Computing predicts that demand for IT professionals will increase by up to 15 per cent in the next eight years, while the number of students aiming for jobs in the industry has fallen by 50 per cent since 2001.
The director general of the CBI, John Cridland, says: “The fact that only 7.5% of candidates [in Computing] are female shows that computing is still seen as a closed shop to young women, so we need action now to address this. We’re seeing some progress on gender balance in other traditionally male-dominated subjects like physics, so it can be done.”