Digital skills: Government action is needed – but the right sort

New research shows ministers should focus on removing the unintended consequences of previous and current qualification reforms, writes David Robinson

New research shows ministers should focus on removing the unintended consequences of previous and current qualification reforms, writes David Robinson

29 Nov 2022, 5:00

Qualification reform is a tricky business. Often government’s best laid plans to introduce shiny new qualifications go awry due to competition with other, existing qualifications with an established track record with employers and universities. I’m looking at you, 14-19 diplomas. Alternatively, when governments are successful in replacing the old with the new, there are often have unintended consequences.

This certainly seems to be the case with digital skills qualifications, as demonstrated in new research published today by EPI, supported by The Hg Foundation. There is no doubt that employers need more employees who have digital skills: official data confirms that one in 20 employers report a vacancy due to a shortage of skills. Of these vacancies, 29 per cent were related to a lack of digital skills and 17 per cent to a lack of advanced digital skills.

And yet, both previous and ongoing qualification reforms may mean that employers continue to struggle to find employees with the skills they need.

As part of GCSE reforms in the mid-2010s, the government announced it would replace IT with computing. The new qualification placed greater emphasis on underlying digital skills which were thought more likely to remain relevant in the face of continuous software and hardware innovations.

Unfortunately, this reform has had a substantial impact on the proportion of female students taking digital GCSEs. Indeed, the shift towards computer science has seen the proportion of female entries in either subject fall from 46 per cent in 2011 to a mere 21 per cent in 2021.

This has had a knock-on effect on take-up of technical qualifications by 16- to 19-year-olds. Taking GCSE computing or IT quadruples the likelihood a female student will take a level 3 technical qualification, while only tripling the likelihood for male students.

We need a clear set of proposals to increase entries from young women

Correspondingly, with fewer female students taking IT or computing at GCSE, the proportion of female entries into technical digital qualifications has dropped from 23 per cent in 2012 to just 17 per cent in recent years. This fall is even more stark when you consider that male entries have also been falling, by a third since their peak in 2015.

And yet, research from CVER suggests female students taking a level 3 digital qualification see an average salary increase of 20 per cent by the age of 28, compared with those who study to level 2. The increase for men is only 4 per cent.

Of course qualification reform never ends, and T levels remain a flagship ambition for the current government. Given the Gillian Keegan’s background in vocational training, it’s likely they are due to receive more attention in the coming years, not less. Happily, it seems that digital T levels will provide many 16- to 19-year-olds with a valuable opportunity to strengthen their skills in this sought-after area.

However, there are significant risks of more unintended consequences. Our analysis suggests the more demanding nature of T levels may result in as many as a quarter of students taking the qualifications T levels are due to replace will not make the transition. Some students will take qualifications at lower levels and some may opt for other subjects altogether.

Ensuring that female students and students with lower key stage 4 grades have more opportunities to establish deeper digital skills does not require more qualification reform. But it does require more government action than is currently taking place.

First, the government must update their digital strategy with a clear set of proposals to increase entries into technical qualifications from young women.  Second, ministers must avoid any decreases in the proportion of 16- to 19-year-olds taking level 3 qualifications in digital skills, by ensuring alternative qualifications continue to be available, at least until enough students are able to access T levels. 

Young people with digital skills qualifications are in high demand. Without further government action, young people and employers alike stand to lose out over the coming years. But focus must be on removing unintended consequences, rather than creating new ones through more qualifications reform.

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