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August 20, 2015

What GCSE results day means for UK tech

STEM subjects remain top of the agenda for the country's programmers.

By Jimmy Nicholls

The familiar end to two years of schoolwork came around in the UK on Thursday as teenagers arrived at school to collect their GCSE results.

Top of the agenda for the country’s IT sector is what grades were achieved in the sciences, technology, engineering and maths, known in shorthand as the "STEM" subjects.

So what lessons can be drawn from this year’s exams?

1. Shifts in pupil intake complicates analysis

Schools have recently been instructed to alter how they enter teenagers for GCSEs, with teachers discouraged from advising 15-year-olds to enter early, and some aged above 16 obliged to return for another go if they fail to secure a C in their GCSE year.

As such, this year saw a reduction in the number of 15-year-olds entering exams by 65,000 from 2014, whilst also recording a rise in those aged over 16 doing GCSEs by 48,000.

Michael Turner, director general of the Joint Council for Qualifications, said: "At a national level there is very little change in this year’s results but we do see educational policies continuing to have an effect on entry patterns and results at a subject level.

"This is particularly the case in English, Mathematics and the Sciences."

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2. More teenagers opting for STEM subjects

In part due to entry changes, the numbers of students taking Maths at GCSE went up 3.4%, with 760,000 teenagers sitting the full course exam, of which 16.5% achieved an A or A* grade, an increase of 1.3% on the previous year.

This was also reflected across the sciences, which saw an uptake of 3.8% across the three main subjects and other science-related courses.

"It’s great to see a rise in pupils taking GCSE STEM students this year. STEM subjects are a crucial part of the curriculum," said Mark Wilkinson, managing director for software vendor SAS UK & Ireland.

He also said STEM subjects were needed to grow "analytically-minded talent" to contribute to the IT sector, adding:

"Analysis of big data can extract key insights that inform business decisions, but we are held back by insufficient people with the skills to analyse that data."

3. More teenagers are opting for STEM subjects

Whilst more people are taking science, this increase was based mostly on the general Science GCSE and advanced courses Additional Science and Further Additional Science.

Biology, Chemistry and Physics saw declines in entry of a few percent each, which may indicate a switch away from "triple science" towards less rigorous courses.

Katja Hall, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, a lobby group, said: "It’s great news that the overall numbers of those taking science is on the up – although we still believe that triple science is the best way to enthuse and excite young people about careers in science.

"We must ensure that the shift away from single sciences doesn’t result in a drop in the overall number achieving three scienceGCSEs."

4. Girls still not taking up IT as much as boys

Over the last few years concerns that too few women are taking up jobs in IT, particularly on the technical side, have led some to lobby for greater efforts to entice them to the trade.

Computing as a subject at GCSE was dominated by boys, with almost 30,000 taking up the course compared to 5,600 girls. Some 18,000 more boys did ICT, which attracted 65,000 boys compared to 47,000 girls.

"Whilst the gender balance could be better overall, these numbers are, bit by bit, starting to move in the right direction," said Charlotte Holloway, Head of Policy at techUK.

"Last week’s A-Level results showed little movement on gender balance at A-Level for Physics and Computing however, which suggests that both government and industry need to work together to sustain interest and excitement in the opportunities that come from digital technologies."

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