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Fewer than half GCSE computing students got a B or higher this year

Teachers need more support to tackle 'chronic shortages'

The UK government has been told to tackle teacher shortages in Blighty – and offer more support for those now teaching tougher syllabuses – as GCSE computing results showed little improvement on last year.

Today's results show a marginal improvement on the 2016 figures – this year, 41 per cent gained a B or higher, compared with 40.3 per cent last year. But this is still lower than 2015's results, where 43.4 per cent achieved grade A*-B.

The results put computing slightly behind than other subjects – although changes to the grading systems for English and maths (they're now ranked, best to worst, 9 to 1) mean this is hard to accurately compare.

The proportion of students gaining grade 5 or above in maths was 49.7 per cent, in English language, 53.3 per cent, and English literature in 55.4 per cent. For the remaining subjects, 41.5 per cent achieved a B or higher.

Bill Mitchell, director of education at BCS, the chartered institute of IT, said the UK "really needs to do much better than this if we hope to remain an advanced economy in the digital age".

He added that the number of students taking the course was also cause for concern.

Despite a positive start when the computing GCSE was launched in 2013, the numbers signing up have plateaued in the past year – some 64,159 Year 11 students registered for the computer science exam this year, compared with 60,521 in 2016.

The decline in students taking the course suggest that interest is already drying up, at a time when the UK needs to boost the number of tech-savvy people.

"This is starting to look worrying, and shows signs we are going to be very far short of the numbers needed for our nation to remain a leader of digital technology in the long term," Mitchell said. "It is estimated that the UK will need more than 1.2 million new technical and digitally skilled people by 2022."

The idea behind introducing computing was to take over from the outdated ICT course, which was criticised for failing to keep pace with the development of technology.

The new curriculum includes more training in programming and coding, but some say the tougher syllabus has put children off.

However, Mitchell told The Reg that there was "nothing wrong with difficulty" – the problem was in providing teachers with the right support so they are confident in the course, and enthuse their students.

"Around 60 per cent of ICT teachers have no degree in an ICT-related subject," he said. "That means there are likely to be more than that without a computing degree... and the new curriculum is very challenging."

Teachers faced with a complex course risk becoming demotivated, he said, noting that children will pick up on a lack of confidence – and that this would have a knock-on effect on the students.

These concerns were echoed by Martin Gollogly, the director of the SAP University Alliances programme in the UK and Ireland, which links up universities and high schools with SAP experts and resources.

He said that, although he was positive about the number of students signing up in future – "really young kids that don't have the same fear of technology will be of benefit to us in 20 years" – there were issues to be addressed now.

<p/>"It’s great we’ve got more young people who are interested in learning about technology, but there are far too few who are capable of teaching it," he said.

Both he and Mitchell pointed to universities as potential sources of support and information for schools, with Mitchell stressing that schools needed to ask for help.

The BCS helps run a network of "master teachers", experienced and passionate teachers who want to support others by providing training, mentoring and coaching to others, and help them deliver the new curriculum.

According to the BCS, schools supported by this "Network of Excellence" achieved more A* to B grades in computing than schools that weren't.

Meanwhile, the Campaign for Science and Engineering's director Sarah Main urged the government to "do more to address chronic teacher shortages in physics, maths and computing", stressing that students will do better if they are taught by teachers "with specialist knowledge of their subject".

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