We have had the A Level and Higher results. The newspapers have published their traditional photographs of young, attractive men and (mainly) women celebrating and the universities seem to be bending over backwards to offer places to all and sundry.
Also, the gender divide seems to be narrowing. Various papers report this so it must be true. For example, the Telegraph tells us “The education gap between boys and girls is at its narrowest in 16 years, A-level results revealed on Thursday, as recent efforts to toughen up standards began to take effect. For the first time in three years the number of boys going to university rose faster than the number of girls, figures from Ucas, the universities admissions service, also showed.”
However, as always the devil is in the detail. The narrowing of the gender gap is mainly at A and A* level. A fast rise in the number of boys going to university conceals the absolute numbers. As the Telegraph’s columnist and Spectator editor, Fraser Nelson, wrote the same day, “This year, girls are 30 per cent more likely than boys to win a university place – a figure that is being celebrated because it’s down on last year’s 31 per cent. The gap is narrowing, but this is not progress worthy of the name.”
More specifically, it’s not just the headline ‘male/female’ divide that matters. Yes, it’s important that we close it so that boys (especially white, working class ones) catch up with girls, but when it comes to the ‘difficult’ subjects – the ones that we need lots of kids passing and then proceeding to study at university level and beyond - the plain fact is that girls don’t do these in anything like the numbers required to fill the skills gap in the years ahead.
The diagram above, taken from the Joint Council for Qualifications, shows starkly just how bad things are. In the three key disciplines, Further Maths, Physics and Computing, the number of boys studying vastly outnumbers the number of girls.
Moreover, it’s not just the male:female ration that causes concern; it’s the actual numbers of these students as well. As the Guardian reports, “Among science and technology subjects, the Institution of Engineering and Technology flagged up falls in the number of students taking the engineering gateway subjects – maths, physics and design and technology (DT) – as harming economic growth if the UK did not produce more engineers.”
Furthermore, Professor Will Stewart of the IET, reported in the Guardian, says, “If we don’t reverse this trend, thousands of young people are effectively closing the door on an exciting, creative career as engineers. We are also at risk of stifling economic growth if we do not produce the future engineers we so critically need.”
Clearly, as a firm that makes its living from placing computer scientists, engineers, developers and all manner of digital specialists with companies that are crying out for their skills, this is a concern. More importantly though, it’s not just serious for the recruitment industry, it’s extremely serious for the future of the country. When will we learn?
Gareth Biggerstaff, MD, Be-IT Resourcing