Computer science GCSE 'too much like maths' for some pupils, college boss warns

Computer science GCSEs are 'turning students off' digital subjects
Computer science GCSEs are 'turning students off' digital subjects

Computer science courses in schools have “become like maths”, with fewer pupils wanting to study the subject, according to the head of a Lancashire college.

Bev Robinson, principal at Blackpool and the Fylde College, told a meeting of the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership’s (LEP) skills board that there was “anecdotal” evidence of a shift away from the subject based on feedback from pupils and parents.

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“[College staff] go to schools for careers advice days and they’re hearing that pupils are being turned off digital by the computer science GSCE – and the sentiment is being widely shared between their mates,” Ms. Robinson said.

“It’s become like maths and in the way some pupils say, ‘I hate maths, I’m not doing that’, they now say it about computer science as well.”

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However, members heard that Blackpool remains one of the top ten areas of the country for take-up of the subject – and it is also a more popular topic of study in the town than in any other local authority area of Lancashire.

The computer science GCSE was overhauled in 2013 and involves studying programming, algorithms and cyber security. But Ruth England from the Lancashire Skills Hub – who is also headteacher of Shuttleworth College in Burnley – says the subject is lacking a clear identity.

“Programming and coding is often what young people want to do – and the computer science GCSE has elements of that, but it also has some very dry [aspects],” Ms. England said.

“It falls between two stools – purist academic students are doing pure science, maths and statistics, while pupils who are really into games are pursuing vocational [routes].”

Bev Robinson said that it was still possible to re-programme students’ attitudes to computer science when they are choosing their post-16 study options, via initiatives like games jams and masterclasses.

“You can see light bulbs going off and young people getting interested again,” she said.

The meeting also heard that ministers are currently considering setting up hubs for computer science teachers in an attempt to increase skills and enthusiasm within the profession.

“One of the issues is the quality of computer science teachers,” Kerry Harrison, the LEP’s digital skills co-ordinator, said.

“Schools are either not offering [the subject], because they haven’t got the staff to do so – or the teachers they do have are under qualified. That means the excitement level [in the lessons] drops, because people are just trying to survive [delivering the subject].”

The number of employees in the digital sector in Lancashire grew to 18,800 between 2012 and 2017, an increase of 1.5 percent. But that was half the three percent growth rate recorded nationwide.

The LEP is about to undertake a survey of employers in the county to determine the digital skills favoured by businesses. They will also be asked whether they think young people are work ready.

The Department for Education was approached for comment on the issue.