It’s that day again, the day when picture editors across the British news media drop everything to find fresh photos of teenagers suspended in mid-air. Yes, it’s A-level results day – and thousands more pupils are passing exams in computing rather than old school ICT.
The number of kids sitting A-level ICT fell by no less than 25 per cent, down from 7,600 last year to 5,600 this year. Of the 5,600 who sat the exams this year, just 1,700 – a third – were girls. Ten years ago just over 12,000 pupils took A-level ICT exams.
But don’t despair! Computing, as distinct from ICT, is one of the top 10 fastest growing A-level subjects, with entries up by 23 per cent from 2017 – literally thousands more pupils signed up for it this year. Nearly two-thirds of those sitting it this summer scored a proper A*-C pass mark, too.
One could speculate that savvy IT teachers are shifting their charges from the middlingly useful ICT A-level to the computing course, which means they have to teach hands-on programming and database skills.
Over the last decade the computing A-level has exploded in popularity among schoolkids, doubling from 5,000 in 2008 to more than 10,000 taking the exams this year. Over 9,000 boys took computing exams in 2018, though the gender imbalance was stark with just 1,211 girls sitting it this year – one girl for every 10 boys.
Pass rates (A*-C) for computing were flat year-on-year at around 62 per cent. For A-level ICT they were very slightly down, with the traditional measure of A*-C grades accounting for 56 per cent of grades awarded, a couple of percentage points below last year’s 58 per cent of good grades.
Entries into ICT exams accounted for less than 1 per cent of total A-level exams sat this summer, reflecting the subject’s position as one of fastest-declining (by exam entries) of them all. Neither ICT nor computing, however, accounted for more than single digits of this year’s total A-level exam entries.
What are the next lot learning?
The A-level ICT syllabus currently in use by the AQA exam board (PDF, 111 pages, we’ll be marking you on your comprehension of it at the end of the day) has 13 subject areas, most of which are the "fundamentals" of IT concepts such as programming, algorithms, data architecture and so on. Languages looked at during the course include C#, Java, Pascal/Delphi, Python and VB.net. Students are also taught how to use SQL.
In contrast, computing goes into some depth about the subject of harnessing computers to do useful stuff, including (according to the OCR exam board's syllabus, PDF) architecture, "writing maintainable programs", and a project that includes writing and testing your own software.
Of course, one should remember that there are plenty of ways into an IT industry career that don’t involve getting an A-level in a related topic. Apprenticeships are becoming more and more popular, featuring on-the-job training rather than sitting in a classroom all week every week, while quite a few more useful programming and techie skills can be picked up through bespoke training courses rather than school-level education.
If you're hiring one of this year's crop of bright young things, bear in mind that an A* or A grade truly does put them in the top few hundred of their cohort. ®