Current ICT and Computer Science in schools - damaging to UK’s future economic prospects?

05 August 2010

Numbers of students studying computing are plummeting across the UK, with a fall of 33% in just three years in ICT GCSE students, a fall of 33% in six years in A level ICT and 57% in eight years in A level Computing students in England and similar declines found elsewhere in the UK*.  Concerns over these declines and the constraints in the way that computing is taught in school are so great that an unprecedented range of organisations, including learned societies, professional bodies, industry corporations and higher education establishments, as well as school teachers themselves, has come together to launch a study of the issues and possible solutions today (5th August 2010).

It is believed that design and delivery of ICT and computer science curricula in schools is so poor that students’ understanding and enjoyment of the subjects is severely limited.  The effects of this, coupled with dwindling student numbers, mean that, unless significant improvements are made, the deficit in the workforce numbers and capability could have a highly negative impact on the UK’s economy.

The new study, Computing in schools and its importance and implications for the economic and scientific wellbeing of the UK, is being led by the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, with support from 24 organisations, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, BCS Academy of Computing, CPHC (The Council of Professors and Heads of Computing), Google, Microsoft Research and several of the UK’s leading universities.

Professor Steve Furber, Fellow of the Royal Society and Chair of the study, said: “The UK has a proud history of leading the way in the field of computer science and associated disciplines, from the development of the world’s first stored-program computers to more recent innovations such as the invention of the world-wide web.  However, from this bright start, we are now watching the enthusiasm of the next generation waste away through poorly conceived courses and syllabuses.  If we cannot address the problem of how to educate our young people in inspirational and appropriate ways, we risk a future workforce that is totally unskilled and unsuited to tomorrow’s job market.”

Professor Matthew Harrison, Director of Education at The Royal Academy of Engineering said: “Young people have huge appetites for the computing devices they use outside of school. Yet ICT and Computer Science in school seem to turn these young people off. We need school curricula to engage them better if the next generation are to engineer technology and not just consume it”.

Dr Bill Mitchell, Director, BCS Academy of Computing, said: `Information technology and computing enable almost everything we do in modern society. The incredible advances in computing we’ve seen in our lifetime represent some of the greatest achievements of the human race. Yet paradoxically a great many schoolchildren misunderstand and actively dislike computing by the time they leave school. For UK PLC to remain a leader in technology there needs to be a concerted effort from schoolteachers, University academics and professionals to ensure schoolchildren understand and are inspired by what computing really is.”

Dr David J. Harper, Head University Relations, Google (Europe, Middle-East and Africa), said: "Google strongly supports this study into computing in UK schools. There has been a dramatic decrease in the number of students studying computing at secondary level, and it's clear that more needs to be done by both schools and technology companies to make learning about computing exciting and inspiring. At a time when computers are playing an ever more important role in our work and everyday lives, we should be able to encourage more, not fewer, students to learn how to create with technology. It's a sad loss that we're missing this opportunity."

Prof Andrew Blake, Deputy Managing Director, Microsoft Research, said: “Action clearly needs to be taken to highlight the importance of studying computing at school.  Computing has enabled a radical change in our society.  We need to impart enthusiasm for computing, and a thorough understanding of the underlying principles. This will ensure that the UK continues to lead in harnessing the prodigious power of computing.  Let’s inject more energy and excitement into the study of computing and so demonstrate to young people the key role they could have in shaping the future.”

Karen Price, Chief Executive of e-skills UK, said “Technology holds the key to innovation and global competitiveness across the whole economy, but the long term prospects of the technology sector are threatened by the decline in students studying IT in schools and universities. Somehow the enthusiasm and excitement young people have for their personal technology such as mobile phones and games consoles is not translating across into the classroom. ICT education in schools needs to inform and inspire young people about technology and allow them to appreciate the excitement and relevance of a career in IT. It must also help young people develop the increasingly sophisticated blend of technical, business and communications skills they will require for an IT professional or business career.”

The study is expected to be completed by winter 2011.

*Source: Joint Council for Qualifications,

33% fall in ICT GCSEs between 2006 to 200933% fall in A Level ICT between 2003 to 2009
57% fall in A Level Computing between 2001 to 2009