The number of pupils taking ICT at A level fell, while 38% rise at GCSE level ‘not enough’.
The number of pupils taking ICT as a GCSE and A level must increase dramatically if the UK is to compete in the global digital economy, it is claimed.
Last week’s A level results showed a drop in the number of teenagers taking exams in ICT, according to statistics released by the Joint Council for Qualifications, which revealed ICT once again fell outside the top 10 subjects.
The 6% decrease to 10,419 pupils studying ICT as an A level comes on the back of another decline of 10% in 2012, despite 7% more students sitting economics than last year, while other STEM subjects chemistry and further mathematics registered 5% and 4.5% rises respectively.
Of the number who took the ICT exams, just 229 achieved the top grade, while the number of girls remained broadly in line with the previous year at 37.6%.
This week’s GCSE results showed a sharp rise in the number of pupils studying ICT, with 38% more than 2012, reaching a total of 73,487, and a 31% year-on-year increase in the number of girls taking the exam.
Despite the numbers and the 68.7% achieving A*-C grades, however, business analytics software company SAS’s head of academic programme, Geoffrey Taylor, says it is not enough.
He tells CBR: "These results have highlighted that participation in STEM subjects is still way below where it needs to be.
"It’s fantastic there’s been an increase at GCSE level but it is not where it needs to be. IT skills are of immense importance to our industry.
"It’s imperative that we see a shift in favour of these subjects from the next generation of talent. With fierce competition from nations such as China and India, where the level of investment in skills and training is on the rise, we need to ensure we’re continuing to stoke the interest of students in technology subjects if we are to compete in the global information economy".
Taylor, whose remit it is to work with universities and schools to raise more interest in STEM subjects, criticised the current ICT curriculum in secondary schools, blaming it for the lack of interest from students.
"It’s been a problem that at school level ICT has a reputation of being as dull as ditchwater," he says. "The challenge for us in the industry working with the school system is to really engage with young people in a very proactive way by saying ICT is a foundation subject."
He predicts the IT knowledge gap in the UK – where tech employers are finding it harder to fill positions because of a lack of adequately skilled graduates – will continue to get bigger over the next five to 10 years as the focus on IT grows in industries.
"The number of professionals we will need to handle big data projects and analyse data and the number of students coming through the school system or going into apprenticeships are just not enough," he adds.
He claims the curriculum is outdated, still relying on showing students Excel spreadsheets, and highlighted SAS projects to engage teenagers by getting them to build their own mobile phone app.
Meanwhile Jane Richardson, director of Oracle Academy EMEA, which provides education traiing at materials at secondary school-level, says she looks forward to September 2013’s new computing curriculum, drawn up with the help of Google, Facebook and UK computer scientists.
She also draws more hope from the increase in GCSE entries.
"To see a 38% year on year increase in entries for ICT examination at GCSE is a positive step forward in the drive to bridge the digital skills gap," she says.
"With 90% of jobs in the future predicted to require some form of digital and computing knowledge, there is mounting pressure on the Government from business groups to ensure students leave school armed with relevant digital skills for the workplace and to help grow the UK’s tech sector."
She believes a key component in providing the UK with skilled IT workers is ensuring their learning trains them for what they will be required to do in a job.
"There is still some way to go in aligning the curriculum with needs of these employer," she adds.
"It is vital that the education system uses this positive news as a jumping off point and looks to develop ICT courses through partnerships with companies like Oracle Academy, to identify the skills children will need in the future and deliver a curriculum that will advance children’s skills."
Bill Mitchell, director of BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) Academy of Computing, also claims the future for IT looks brighter, after BCS helped successfully push for computer science to be included in the EBacc school performance measure.
He says: "It is very regrettable that computing A-level has again shown another decline this year.
"This on-going decline is one reason BCS, working with Computing At School, has made introducing a new statutory computing curriculum into primary and secondary schools a priority, launched a new computing teacher training scholarship and launched the network of teaching excellence in computer science.
"These will result in a generation of students taking the new GCSEs in computing, which should eventually result in more students going on to A level computing."
SAS’s Taylor believes the UK economy will not suffer in the short-term, with the "cushion" of foreign IT workers coming to study for master’s degrees in computing science in Britain, and is hopeful that with a better approach to teaching IT the problem could resolve itself in as little as five years’ time.
He concludes: "That’s provided we can put a lot of energy and effort now into increasing the number of people studying IT, it really is key to ensuring the UK has enough skilled workers in the future."