(RQF levels 2/3 and SCQF levels 5/6/7) - March 2022

Foreword by Professor Dame Muffy Calder, Chair of BCS School Curriculum and Assessment Committee

Dame Professor Muffy CalderIt would be difficult to spend more than a few hours reading about the future economic wellbeing of the UK without becoming aware of the importance of Computer Science and digital skills.

Whether at the heart of the UK’s Industrial Strategy and its successors[1,2], the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review[3], the 2021 Digital Strategy for Wales[4], or the global views of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)[5], the need to equip adults in the workforce with the skills to thrive in a digital world is an ever-present concern.

Further impetus has come from the COVID-19 pandemic, where the contribution and prevalence of computing has become clear as many activities have moved online and/or been supported by software and algorithms.

The administrations that currently govern the UK, each with responsibility for education under the control of their respective parliaments and assemblies, have taken markedly different approaches to computing and digital skills education.

This is illustrated in the Royal Society summaries of the overall approach to computing education in schools across the UK; their 2017 ‘After the reboot’ report[6] captures the main philosophies behind curriculum change in each administration, accompanied by a recent snapshot of computing teaching issues and challenges in England, Scotland, and Wales[7].

The 2014 work of Brown et al.[8] also captured many of these ideas and concerns. In many ways, this variety is helpful as, with at least four flowers blooming, there are plenty of lessons to be learned (robust evidence notwithstanding) of initiatives which have developed and adapted.

What is becoming clearer, is that each administration is dealing with a genuine challenge: a tension between teaching Computer Science and digital skills for all.

Within this range of approaches (and use of terminology) several common issues are evident, whether we are considering academic or vocational options:

  • What does a ‘good number of students’ specialising in Computer Science look like
  • The imbalance in uptake of and progression within the subject by male and female students
  • The challenge of securing sufficient numbers of and appropriately qualified teachers
  • Breadth or depth - should we prioritise universal digital and computing education or curate specialist knowledge
  • Specialism versus adaptability
  • What should curricula look like

This ambitious report draws together information about participation and achievement by young people across the four nations of the UK.  Principally, it  covers academic computing and digital skills qualifications accessed by learners at age 16 and 18, which is when most students have to specialise and opt-in to detailed study of the subject. It also covers vocational and technical qualifications (VTQ) at levels 2 and 3 in the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) and levels 5 and 6 in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).

This report offers a comprehensive picture of the varying levels of engagement in Computer Science and closely related qualifications and focuses our attention on continuing challenges of participation by young women and securing enough teachers to deliver specialist teaching and learning effectively. It also demonstrates how much activity there is to adapt to emerging skill needs, with a growing number of digital awards and qualifications to sit alongside the more typical Computer Science ones.

The data in this report, and it is a decidedly data-led review, sets down a baseline for BCS and its stakeholders. It outlines our thinking about computing education, opportunities for change, and what data needs to be addressed annually. This iterative, data-driven approach highlights evidence and data gaps to be overcome so that we avoid taking leaps of faith as we work with others to support the development of computing and digital skills education across the UK.

Producing this report has presented challenges. Access to comparable data across the four nations is variable, particularly where VTQ’s are concerned. This landscape has been described (in England at least) as being ‘extraordinarily complex and opaque’[9] and although there has been some positive change in recent years the accompanying engagement and attainment data is similarly so.

Over time, the choices available to learners have been streamlined, including a number of information and communications technology (ICT) and digital qualifications where funding approval has been removed[10]. However, it is possible that an increased diversity of courses could play an important role in attracting a more diverse group of learners in the future, so understanding the data behind the VTQs will assume a growing level of importance.

It is important to note that the relative importance placed on the VTQs themselves (compared to GCSEs for example) amongst key stakeholders, including school leaders, will also be a critical factor in the availability and ultimately uptake these vocationally focussed qualifications.

Our concerns around female student access and participation may be mirrored by other groups of students such as those from certain ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but we do not currently have the required data publicly available. This is something we urge the relevant authorities and examination bodies to address urgently.

As noted above, different administrations across the UK have taken markedly different approaches; understanding the underlying goals and whether they are achieving their aims will be fascinating. This report offers colleagues across the UK a rich evidence base to draw on when refining approaches or developing new ones.

Understanding the complex Computer Science and digital skills ecosystem across the UK is a critically important activity for BCS, linking directly to our Royal Charter and our vision to make IT good for society. This report, our analysis of the available data and insights as well as calling for more, and better data can only help to ensure that our collective efforts to make computing education and digital skills meaningful and available to all succeeds.