In Focus: What can schools do to get girls into coding?

There are some great ways to help girls learn that coding and computing could be subjects ‘for them’, writes Sam Shallcross

Sam Shallcross from Bromley High, talking about girls and coding

Over the last few years we’ve seen a number of high-profile initiatives to get girls into coding. The drive to close the tech gender gap feels very much alive and yet the numbers tell a different story.

In 2020 just 21 per cent of students taking GCSE computer science were girls. And less than 20 per cent of IT specialists are women. So what are the barriers to getting girls into coding and what as teachers can we do to remove them?

Gender stereotyping is a big issue and for many children this starts at a young age. By the time girls reach the age of seven, some  have already decided which subjects they are “good at”. Their ideas become embedded and this, coupled with a lack of visible female tech role models, only serves to reinforce their preconceptions as they get older.

“By the time girls reach the age of seven, some  have already decided which subjects they are ‘good at’.”

That’s why it’s so important to introduce girls to coding at an early age. The 2014 Computing Curriculum went some way towards addressing this by aiming to introduce programming concepts to children as young as five. But it has proved a challenge for many primary teachers to undertake, due to their own lack of programming knowledge. Most primary teachers aren’t computing specialists and many will have little or no experience of programming. So how do we as educators overcome these challenges?

Firstly, teachers should draw on the local expertise of colleagues to develop their own subject knowledge and in turn become specialists supporting others. When I first started teaching over 20 years ago, I had one computer in my classroom of 30 children. Even then I could see the potential of harnessing the technology to transform learning and thanks to some excellent localised training, I was able to grow my enthusiasm into expertise. Back then high quality technology CPD was hard to come by, but today organisations such as the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE)  provide an excellent programme of Primary Computing courses .

“Most primary teachers aren’t computing specialists and many will have little or no experience of programming.”

Equipping our primary school teachers with the right skills and knowledge is vital. But we also need to consider whether a different approach to engaging girls in coding would also be of benefit. In my experience it often is and taking a programming idea from concept to reality can make a huge difference.

It’s really important for girls to relate to what they are learning and to see the bigger picture. Programming is just one element of the Primary Computing Curriculum and understanding how and why technology works is just as important. By giving girls a global view and bringing coding to life with real examples, we can make programming relatable and much more exciting too.

As an example, when we are learning about systems with inputs, processes and outputs, I want my pupils to see these concepts in the world around them. So, we discuss the process of online shopping and how all of the different elements – tech and people – come together to make a system that benefits the business, shopper and employees. We use Argos or Amazon as examples, tracking the journey of a purchase from click to collection and showing how programming and technology makes the magic happen.

Sharing these examples is important for girls and making a connection gives them their lightbulb moment. Examples that relate to the tech they know and love – such as smartphones – work brilliantly. Recently we used BBC micro:bit  computers (www.microbit.org) to code a step-o-meter. When the girls discovered that their phones and smart watches were programmed, using a sensor to count steps in exactly the same way, they were fascinated!

“It’s really important for girls to relate to what they are learning and to see the bigger picture.”

Coding resources that offer realistic programming opportunities can make a big difference too. Discovery Education Coding (www.discoveryeducation.co.uk) excels at this, allowing children to build their own games, apps, simulations and much more. It’s particularly appealing for girls because it has a tangible output. It also allows them to explore coding concepts in a safe environment and offers a great balance between structured and open-ended learning, with room for creativity too.

When I first started teaching girls to code, I noticed that they enjoyed problem solving together. It’s much more common for girls to take a collaborative approach to programming and coding clubs are ideal for this. Schools looking to set up their own club can find free support and resources from The Code Club (www.codeclub.org), a global community of volunteers and educators.

The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) creates opportunities for girls to engage in team coding activities very early in their school career. Our students are invited to an annual “Junior Techathon” where they investigate world problems and devise solutions using technology, for example by planning ideas to support a sustainable city. The event is supported by a panel of female technologists and computer scientists. It’s important that schools find ways to highlight women in tech and technology events or assemblies can be a great way to do this.

“It’s more common for girls to take a collaborative approach to programming and coding clubs are ideal for this.”

Above all, parents and schools need to make sure that girls have access to technology and codable applications from a young age, even if they show little interest. These early experiences should be accessible, fun and allow room for creativity – open applications like Scratch (www.scratch.mit.edu) are a good entry point.  These first interactions will shape how girls perceive coding for their whole school career, allowing them to form their own opinions and build a love of computing before external influences come into play.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s tech leaders and there’s no doubt that a great many of these will be women. But encouraging girls into coding is about more than closing the tech gender gap. It’s about making sure that we have the diversity of skills, perspectives and experiences to get our world ready for whatever comes next. Let’s help our girls to see the difference that they could make. Let’s give them the self-belief to code the future.