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Teacher Craig Barton is back with series two of Inside Exams, the podcast that gives you an access all areas pass to snoop around behind the scenes at AQA.
He’ll be meeting the people who write and mark your students’ exams, as well as pioneering teachers, to get answers to all the questions you ponder throughout the school day.
© AQA 2019
Finding a female Fatboy Slim
Episode eight | 15 July 2019
Featured in this podcast
Craig Barton: Hello. And welcome to Inside Exams. I’m Craig Barton. I’m a maths teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. I know plenty about irrational numbers and probability theory, but exams, they’re still shrouded in mystery. So, across this series, I’m going behind the scenes, to see what I can learn from those setting our students’ exams. Today I want to tackle the big topic of gender disparity in certain subjects. Because I read some stats recently that quite frankly shocked me. Nationally 80% of students who take GCSE computer science are boys. 77% of A-level sociology students are girls, while they make up only 22% of the A-level physics cohort. When numbers that extreme are reported by the media as existing in big businesses or certain sectors, there’s uproar. Do we need to be just as concerned by the gender gaps in school subjects as we are, quite rightly, when we see them in the wider world?
After all, how can we expect genders to be equal in board rooms, if imbalances already exist decades before in the classroom? Before I leave my school for the last time this series, as always, I need to know what you need to know.
Hannah: Hi. My name’s Hannah. I’m a physics teacher, and I was wondering what you are doing to address the gender gap in certain subjects, and therefore certain careers?
Craig Barton: So, is gender imbalance something exam boards think about when they’re writing specifications and papers? And how do they ensure there aren’t gender biases, when it comes to awarding results? Steve Kenny is AQA’s Head of Computer Science, and I’m going to meet him. Now it might seem a bit odd that we’re two men talking about gender imbalance, but fear not, I’ll redress the balance with my second guest. But I’m intrigued to find out what Steve and the exam board are doing to help.
Craig Barton: Steve, it is an absolute pleasure to meet you today. My aim is to get to the bottom of the gender imbalance in certain subjects, why it happens, and what we might be able to do about it. Now, your subject specialism is computer science. What patterns in terms of the uptake by the different genders do we see?
Steve Kenny: In terms of an academic GCSE, the first entry was in 2012. So, it’s quite a young subject, compared to other subjects.
Craig Barton: Yes, yes.
Steve Kenny: The entry in 2012 was around about 1000 students, 1200 students.
Craig Barton: Okay. How would that compare to something like maths or English, what are we talking there, hundreds of thousands?
Steve Kenny: Hundreds of thousands easily.
Craig Barton: Right. So, very small?
Steve Kenny: Yes.
Craig Barton: Okay.
Steve Kenny: And over time, computer science has grown, it has grown really quickly. So, last year, 2018, there were round about 74,000 students took GCSE computer science. So, there has been this massive growth. However, underlying all that, there has always been a gender imbalance in it. Where we are now, roughly, a fifth of the cohort is female at GCSE computer science. We kind of bucked the trend at AQA a little bit in that our cohort is slightly more female than national picture. For 2018, the national picture, 20.4% of the cohort was girls. For AQA, it was 21.2%.
Craig Barton: I like it.
Steve Kenny: So, slightly… saying that, if we put the AQA cohort in context, we’ve got about a fifth of the national cohort.
Craig Barton: This is great. And I’m loving the fact you’ve got loads of numbers. Keep [throwing] these, it’s music to my ears this. Keep them numbers coming. This is a massive question. But why is it? Why do more boys choose computer science than girls?
Steve Kenny: My history, I was a physics teacher. In a former life, I was a physics teacher, and physics always had the same issues.
Craig Barton: Yes, yes.
Steve Kenny: So, in my day I taught physics for ten years almost. I could probably count it on one hand the number of girls who took A-levels in GCSE physics. Part of the issue with computer science, my personal view is, I think it’s about the perception of the subject. CAS Computing at schools did a survey of… it was about 400 students in 2018, about 12 months ago, and they were a mix of students who hadn’t studied computer science, or who currently work in computer science. And interestingly, they spoke to the students, not the parents, not the teachers, but the people who actually, I suppose, made the decision.
There seems to be a perception amongst the students who don’t take computer science in that it’s very mathematically based, and it’s difficult, and it’s not really for them. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the way the subject is delivered, or just the overall aspect of the subject. And so, I think the gender imbalance is really caused by the perception. I think there are lots of other things as well we need to think about Craig. It’s also places in the curriculum. What’s computer science up against in terms of other subjects, particularly for options? The programme [of study], the key stage one to four programme of study, was introduced about 2012, so, that was meant to give all students across all key stages an element of computer science to engage and enthuse them. But that hasn’t translated into GCSE numbers, in terms of the gender imbalance.
In the CAS report, one of the main things seemed to be that there was a general lack of information from students, exactly about what the course was, and probably, more importantly, where it could go to. I think some students, the perception from the report, was very much that well all it will do is, it will lead me down a path doing something with computers, and I don’t really want to do that, whereas, I think what a lot of teachers are trying to do is encourage students by showing them the creative aspect of computer science, because it is really a creative subject. And also, the computational logical thinking, where that can lead you to. It doesn’t necessarily lead to a career in computing. It can lead to wide and varied career focus.
My daughter is 12 in year eight, and she is just about to [do] year nine, she is going to take her options in year nine. I was talking to her computer science teacher who’s female, very, very enthusiastic teacher. She was saying that the thing in computer science is, some of the girls take a while to get it, but when they get it, they absolutely fly. And interestingly, if we look at kind of AQA statistics, particularly GCSE, across all grades, so nine to one at GCSE, and A* to E at A-level, the girls who take computer science, the relative percentage at each grade boundary, is higher for girls than for boys.
Craig Barton: Really?
Steve Kenny: So, the girls actually perform better.
Craig Barton: Yes.
Steve Kenny: So, I think it’s a really, really interesting concept as to why boys do it, and whether it is just the fact that they think it’s more of a boys’ subject as opposed to a girls’ subject.
Craig Barton: Yes. You mentioned physics is another one of these that has this gender imbalance. What are some of the other subjects? Which are the ones that have it the other way round?
Steve Kenny: If you look at things like performing arts, performing arts subjects tend to have slightly different gender imbalance in favour of females. You also get things like MFL, modern foreign languages, which also has that gender imbalance, and humanities subjects as well. The national cohort of students is pretty much constant, and we’re all fishing in the same pool. So, when you get gender imbalance in one direction, you get the opposite in another direction.
Craig Barton: Yes. Let me ask you, and I don’t know if you have an answer to this but, is the pattern in these subjects similar in single sex schools as it is to a mixed school? So, would you get, for example, in an all girls’ school, would there be a higher proportion of students sitting computer science, or a lower one?
Steve Kenny: At AQA, part of the explanation for our higher percentage of students at GCSE who are female, is because we have a relatively large percent of independent girls’ schools.
Craig Barton: Oh right.
Steve Kenny: So, the subject is still offered in independent girls’ schools.
Craig Barton: Oh right.
Steve Kenny: So, the subject is still offered in independent girls’ schools. The numbers are not particularly huge, as you would imagine. I’ve spoken to a couple of people, they work in independent non selective schools, and they’re saying their gender balance is about 50/50. One guy in particular I was talking to, he’s an examiner for us, so, he has been teaching for a long time. He worked in a boys’ school and at an associated girls’ school. So, one teacher teaches the girls at GCSE, he’d teach the boys at GCSE. At A-level, he has got equal numbers of boys and girls, interestingly.
Craig Barton: Oh wow.
Steve Kenny: And whether that’s just the experience that the girls have got. He was saying to me, he felt like the girls aren’t intimidated by the boys -
Craig Barton: Yes, that’s what I thought it might be.
Steve Kenny: - So, he was saying to us, in the girls’ school, because it’s all girls, even though it’s a male teacher, it’s not a female teacher, the numbers are reasonably healthy. But then the numbers going on to A-level are reasonably healthy as well. And the girls are not intimidated by the boys so they will go in and they will collaborate, they will work together. But I sometimes… you probably know yourself Craig, you go into a class, and there’s a group of boys, and they can become a bit more domineering, they can become a bit domineering.
Craig Barton: Of course.
Steve Kenny: It can also work the other way, you know, they can help the girls. But I think most of the time, the girls feel a bit intimidated.
Craig Barton: I’m going to go a bit controversial now Steve, we might as well. So, we’ve acknowledged that this gender imbalance exists.
Steve Kenny: Yes.
Craig Barton: Is it a problem, should we be worrying about it?
Steve Kenny: I think we should. Again, just my personal view. If you look into industry, 20% of the cohort in industry, in terms of broadly computer science ish jobs, is female. And that can’t be good in the workplace. You know yourself, and I know myself, in days from teaching, schools tend to have a mixed community. And I think if there’s fewer females going into say teaching computer science, that’s going to perpetuate this issue. So, I personally do think it’s an issue for us. A lot of people you talk to will say computer science is a creative subject. The things we need to think about is, for example, wearable technology, how computer science is evolving. And really, it’s not just about a load of people sitting in a room programming, writing games, or producing things like that, it’s much broader than that.
Craig Barton: Yes.
Steve Kenny: And I do think by not having a representative sample across the community, whether that’s age, race, ethnicity, whatever it may be, I think it’s detrimental to the subject. There has been a lot of female involvement in computer science, that hasn’t largely been recognised. And maybe the idea of role models, as I was saying before, my daughter’s teacher in school, really enthusiastic, clearly knows his stuff, and she’s enthusing my daughter about computer science in the way it’s delivered. We need to try and break the cycle, and the only way we can break the cycle is by encouraging more people through.
Craig Barton: Well on that point, what can AQA do as an awarding body, to break the cycle?
Steve Kenny: If we start at the very basics from an awarding body point of view. We produce a specification and the specification simply lists the content that has to be taught to the student, to enable them to do the exams, okay? When we list the content, the content is the content. So, it’s written in such a way as this is the content that you have to deliver. So, in that respect, we don’t really have an influence over the way that content is delivered. So, a lot of that is down to you as an individual teacher. One of the things we do in AQA, or we have done, we did run a marketing campaign called ‘See it to be it.’ And that was really about kind of role models, presenting… both girls and boys to be fair, you know?
It’s meant to be a bit of everything. So, this would have been a marketing post that was sent to schools, and it really was about providing positive role models for students, both girls and boys, and really about opening up the subject, to make it more accessible, to have that thing of a positive role model in front of you. So, there’s a visual clue there, people can actually see, other people, people like them, doing the jobs that they want to do. And when we produce resources for students, we try to make the resources gender neutral.
I suppose it’s really about the context of the resource. So, for example, if we’re doing a resource on trace tables, it’s really about presenting the facts, rather than putting, I don’t know, trace tables in a context that boys would like, or putting them in a context of girls, but we don’t do that. We present the information to the teacher.
Craig Barton: Got it.
Steve Kenny: Because the bottom line is, the teacher is the professional who knows the students in front of them, who knows how to influence those students in terms of delivery.
Craig Barton: That’s interesting. So, you provide resources in a way that kind of puts the onus on the teacher to inspire, but doesn’t kind of force them down a route where they’re favouring one gender than the other? That’s fascinating. Have you ever been tempted, and this may be the stupidest idea you’ve ever heard in your life Steve, but to go for kind of a context that may favour girls, in your materials, to try and kind of boost the uptake that way?
Steve Kenny: I think that’s difficult isn’t it Craig? Because I think the minute you try to do that, you then start to alienate the boys.
Craig Barton: Yes.
Steve Kenny: And I think that’s really difficult. If we go on to kind of talk about things like exam questions.
Craig Barton: Yes, absolutely.
Steve Kenny: Again, with exam questions, we do try in the exams to make them as gender neutral as possible. So, the exam questions are always put in a context most students would be familiar with.
Craig Barton: Even that’s difficult, isn’t it?
Steve Kenny: Absolutely Craig, yes, it really is. I suppose the other thing people might think where there’s an unconscious bias, is in the way we mark the papers. Way back when, when I was a teacher, students would sit your exam, you’d then collect all the papers together, send them off to a particular person, and that person would mark the entire script.
Craig Barton: Sure.
Steve Kenny: So, they’d know who the student was, they’d know which school the student was from, and they’d begin to mark the script. To some extent, that may have led to some unconscious bias within the marking process, you know? From the name they can obviously work out details of the students. So, while that may have led to an unconscious bias, it may not have done as well, at the same time.
Craig Barton: Sure.
Steve Kenny: What we do now in AQA, when students take the examinations, we take the scripts, and we scan the scripts. When examiners mark the scripts, they never mark a complete script from a single student. So, what they would do is, they would mark individual… we call them items. Most teachers would probably be familiar with questions and sub questions, or as we call them in AQA, dotties. Dotty one, dotty two, everyone calls them dotties. So, what we do is, we take all the sub questions and break them up. So, when the examiners start to mark the questions, the only thing that they say is the clip in front of them. There’s nothing where they can identify students, or a school. They’re just purely marking the answer based on what the answer is. So, in that case, all the unconscious bias has been removed from the marking process as well.
Craig Barton: Can we backtrack just to the questions themselves? I’m fascinated about this. So, we’ve done episodes in this series about the language used in questions, and the context. I’ll tell you why the context interests me, and we’re going to go a bit mathematical here. There’s a study in maths, by a lady called Jo Bowler, and it’s a paper that’s called… I always get the name a little bit wrong, but it’s along the lines of, when girls prefer football to fashion. And as we’ve spoke about before, there’s the idea that if you write and question in a context that would… perhaps it’s based around football, you may think that will favour the boys, and then you think oh, no, well let’s counteract that, let’s write a context that will be more interesting, that girls will be more interested in to favour the girls.
But what this study found was that if you write a question in a context that say, for example, the boys know more about, they actually bring in a lot of information with them into the question, that’s not actually relevant, and it actually puts them off the question, and they perform worse as opposed to, oh, I know absolutely nothing about this context, so, I’m actually just going to focus on the information that’s given in the question. So, I perform to my ability as opposed to bringing in extra stuff. So, there’s a real danger isn’t there in… you mentioned we try to write gender neutral questions, but that’s almost an art form, isn’t it?
Steve Kenny: Absolutely Craig. With our examiners, they’re all experienced examiners, they’re all experienced teachers. And our examination papers go through a very rigorous process in terms of looking at all aspects. And one of those things is, we have a person called a scrutineer, and the scrutineer behaves as a student.
Craig Barton: Oh wow.
Steve Kenny: So, what they do is, they get a clean copy of the paper, they don’t get the mark scheme, and they will answer the paper as a student would. And so, really what we’re checking, amongst other things, we’re checking, is there any bias in this paper? Going a bit left field. We offer an international GCSE in computer science as well. At the moment it’s kind of in the Middle East. And really what we’re trying to do there is, remove any cultural biases as well.
Craig Barton: Oh wow, God, yes.
Steve Kenny: So, I think there’s a whole research topic on cultural bias and gender bias within papers. So, for example, if we look at A-level computer science, at A*, 4.2% of the female cohort achieves an A*, compared to 3.2% of boys.
Craig Barton: Right okay.
Steve Kenny: For me that suggests, at A-level certainly, there doesn’t appear to be a bias in the questions. If the girls are performing really well, you would assume that the questions aren’t biased in favour of the boys.
Craig Barton: Yes.
Steve Kenny: If we look at the AQA statistics for 2018, so, these are just the AQA, not the national statistics, 7% of the female cohort got a grade nine, whereas 4.2% of the cohort were boys, who got a grade nine.
Craig Barton: Yes.
Steve Kenny: So, again, that tends to suggest to me that one of the factors, maybe that gender bias in the questions, doesn’t appear to be there. Or if it is there, the girls are coping admirably with it.
Craig Barton: This strikes me… these figures strike me as things that girls need to hear, right?
Steve Kenny: Interestingly, if you look at the skills that the students develop during computer science, the CAS survey, asks the computer science students, and non-computer science students. The non-computer science students said the top skill that they developed was people skills, interestingly. Then things like situation analysis, then things like mathematics, and really quite low down the list was things like electronics knowledge, and those kind of things, whereas with the non-computer scientists, 78% of them said it was maths, maths based. And then the next one was web and internet skills, which was low down the CAS list. And again, electronics knowledge, that came third, for the non-computer scientists.
Craig Barton: So, it does sound like… and I assume it’s the same in other subjects, it may be a communications issue this?
Steve Kenny: I absolutely think it is. I don’t think the students going into the subject fully understand (a) what the subject is, (b) how they can thrive. They don’t understand how they can excel in the subject, and they don’t understand where it can go to. So, I think you’re absolutely right Craig, I think you’ve absolutely nailed it. It really is about communication.
Craig Barton: Well Steve, you have given me so much to think about, about the gender imbalance in subjects. It has been an absolute pleasure speaking to you today. Thank you so much.
Steve Kenny: Cheers Craig, thanks very much.
Craig Barton: It’s interesting to hear how gender affects exam entries, and to know that awarding bodies are doing what they can to redress any imbalances. But in this case, I think a lot of the responsibility needs to be taken by us as teachers in schools. To find out what more we can be doing, I’m going to meet Dawn Hewitson, a course leader for PGCE computer science at Edge Hill University.
Dawn, it is absolutely fantastic to meet you today, thank you so much for inviting us to your university. And I’m dead excited, for two reasons, to speak to you today, firstly because you’re a recognised expert in computing, but also, I know you’ve got a keen interest in gender imbalance. So, just to kick things off, where does that interest come from?
Dawn Hewitson: It comes from being involved in education and also in computing for over 30 years now. And throughout my journey, in my career, I’ve noticed significantly that there are a number of males and very, very few females. It’s not the sort of place that you come as a girl to find friends and influence people unfortunately. And even in my career, wanting to make improvements, I’ve done things like I used to be an advisor for the Specialist Schools Trust, taking children and teachers into industry, to try and encourage them to become interested in industry, and also the vast array of roles.
And you notice that there’s very few female computer science teachers, and there’s also very few females in the industry. And there’s also, I suppose, a little bit of pig-headedness in me that I actually feel, why can’t I, you know, why can’t I do what a man does, you know? It’s really a topic area where you really can change the world, if you’ve got the right influences round you.
There’s a gentleman called Peter Kemp who has done a Roehampton report, and he has looked at social mobility and the ability for computing to improve that. And he reckons that gender stereotypes start from as young as 18 months old.
Craig Barton: Wow, really?
Dawn Hewitson: Yes. They are already engendered to identify with a gender stereotype as young as 18 months old, yes.
Craig Barton: That’s scary, isn’t it?
Dawn Hewitson: Very scary. So, it’s not something actually that you can redress at secondary school level. It has got to go right the way down to primary school, in my opinion. And the thing with girls is, they want to solve a problem. A lot of them want to solve a problem. And unfortunately, the computational thinking side of the curriculum, is not ignored, but it’s not paid attention to, as much as it could be. And I personally feel that that’s where the balance redress could be made. And one of the things that you can look at, to kind of evidence that, is the Duke of York’s idea project.
Craig Barton: Oh, tell me more about that?
Dawn Hewitson: Oh well –
Craig Barton: Oh, here we go, this sounds a good one.
Dawn Hewitson: – Yes. Well he has got an ideas project that largely is maker culture really. And maker culture is really exciting. They do like a pitch at the palace, where they have to design a project and go and share it at St. James’ Palace with the Duke of York. And that is really… a lot of children, where they get the opportunity, think that that’s quite exciting. And a lot of girls do tend to get involved in that project and that’s quite good. And in terms of maker culture, that is really led by girls, you know? It’s really led by girls throughout… we went to a fantastic project at Bolsover Castle, run by the Foundation for Digital Creativity, and the Royal Society of Art, and they were producing motivational roses that use GPS technology to light up a heart shape that was projected onto the castle. And the nearer they went to the castle, the bigger the heart went.
Craig Barton: Wow.
Dawn Hewitson: And it was based on a historical project. And it was actually quite interesting, for a number of reasons, the main one being, Bolsover is one of those areas that suffered as a result of the miners’ strike. And it’s a very socially divided town. And so, we went in there with the original idea of trying to bring the town together. That’s really where I think it would make a huge difference in the classroom, to combine computing subjects with other subjects, so that they can see why they’re doing these things. Why do they need to know about how computer programmes work? Why do they need to be able to solve problems? Well if you can solve a problem in one subject, you can do it in others.
And there are people who talk about problem solving culture. So, Mark Dalling who was one of the national leads for computer science, he is dyslexic, and he used computer programming to improve his language skills. And so, that’s something that you can … you can think about how the influence of computing can sort of improve other areas of your life. So, that’s what I think anyway.
Craig Barton: What are some of the subjects, for example, that something like computing would work well with, to kind of show the wider role of computing?
Dawn Hewitson: So, we’ve got design technology, which is an obvious partner. Music.
Craig Barton: Oh, tell me more about that?
Dawn Hewitson: Music. Our lovely friend Sam Aaron with his Sonic Pi. Everybody knows who Fatboy Slim is, but we need a female Fatboy Slim.
Craig Barton: Right okay.
Dawn Hewitson: We do need a female Fatboy Slim. He uses music. He teaches Ruby Programming, using a musical … and that is mega popular with girls, they love it. We have three girl guides on the course at the moment, and they have used Sonic Pi, as a vehicle to take computing into the schools that they work in. And one of them is at the Liverpool Studio School, and they have had some tremendous successes with things like that, it has been really, really good. The other thing that is not used effectively is dance.
Craig Barton: Okay, go on?
Dawn Hewitson: Yes. So, there’s a young lady called Genevieve Smith-Nunes who is researching at the moment at Cambridge University. And she does some fantastic work about computational dancing. And girls never think about how a dance routine is put together, and how that is actually solving a problem, you know? A dance routine, which steps you do. If you go to the gym and you do an aerobics class, and you do the grapevine, a grapevine is an algorithm. Because you step one foot behind and then one foot in front and all that sort of stuff. And that is a routine, and that can be referred to as a function.
And it’s about likening the concepts of computing, when girls are on their own, in their own environment, to make them feel more confident in the things that… and make them understand it in language that they understand.
Craig Barton: Why does this encourage… if it’s not a stupid question, increased girl participation? Is it particularly important for girls to see the wider application of these subjects?
Dawn Hewitson: Well it is. But if they produce an artefact like a piece of music, they can share it on social media, you know? They can add it to a film that they’ve done, or they can do things with it that aren’t just sitting there writing… churning out code, you know? Churning out code is interesting, if you’re interested in it, but the approaches to coding in schools, in my opinion, is wrong anyway. The way in which, in industry, in reality, if you’ve got a problem, and you can’t solve it, you can go onto things like GitHub, or there’s loads of different sites like that where you can find solutions, and adapt them to what you want them to be. But you can’t do that in schools because that’s called plagiarism, so that’s problematic.
I think that that particular approach of actually getting them to actually look out there into the wider world, and seeing how coding… for example, Facebook, you could use Facebook as an example, how is that so successful, why is it so successful as a platform, and what programmes run in the background? And I don’t see very much of that in the curriculum.
Craig Barton: Now I’m nervous about what I’m about to say here Dawn.
Dawn Hewitson: Go on?
Craig Barton: We’re going to go controversial on the podcast, and I’m praying my wife is not going to listen to this. Because I’m going to put my chauvinistic hat on here.
Dawn Hewitson: Yes.
Craig Barton: How do we know… and please don’t punch me here, but how do we know that it’s not the case that boys are just better suited, and better at –
Dawn Hewitson: Oh, my word.
Craig Barton: – Do you know what I mean?
Dawn Hewitson: Well shall we start with a statistic? 80% of computer systems fail, you know? Why do you think that is?
Craig Barton: I don’t know.
Dawn Hewitson: And my opinion is that there’s not enough women in there. Women are naturally… they’re natural problem solvers and multitaskers, you know? They really are. And I’m not saying that men can’t do that. But I do think that there are skills, soft skills, that women have, that are not exploited properly in the computing industry. And I think that that is a massive, massive issue. Boys are not better at it than girls. And actually, the girls that I work with that are better at it than boys, they are five, six, seven times better at it than boys. Because to make a point, you’ve got to be better.
Craig Barton: I wonder what can schools themselves do, to help address this gender imbalance?
Dawn Hewitson: Okay. So, there’s loads of stuff. There’s some fantastic organisations out there that help. Our main influencer really is CAS the Computing at School organisation. In Manchester we are extremely lucky, we’ve got a lady called Carol Murray, who heads all that up, and she goes out into schools and set things up. Free workshops, but they’re very poorly attended. It’s really difficult to get teachers out of school. And actually, some of these men have actually listened to us which is very nice.
Craig Barton: You’re joking?
Dawn Hewitson: No, they have, yes. They have listened to us. And one of the good things that has come out of it is, we’ve now got some really generous bursaries to get teachers out of school, and into these… what they’re called now NCCE programmes. So, it’s the National Centre for Computing Excellence. And those are happening all over the country, they’re happening everywhere. And I have to say, I went into a workshop yesterday and it was… I think it was 80% women in there. So, I was quite… and they’re aimed at people who haven’t got computing degrees, you know? And it is trying to redress the balance, and getting those people out there, that don’t feel confident, and feel beaten up a little bit by men sometimes, proverbially, not literally, that they can actually… I call it dip in and have a do, you know? A typical Lancashire expression. But that’s what they can do.
And there’s no threat, there’s nobody judging you about how difficult or how hard you’re finding it. You’re literally given the support and the help that you need, which I think is a really, really positive move forward. So, there’s that.
Craig Barton: One thing I’ve done in maths… because whilst I’m in a fortunate position that everyone has to do maths, that’s not true at A-level. And when we have a problem, you tend to get more boys doing A-level maths than girls. One thing I’ve done is, I get two of my sixth form students to come and speak to my year 11s, my prospective A-level students. And I always make sure that there’s a girl and a boy. And I’m interested to get your take on this Dawn. I feel that role models are key to this. And we’ve spoke about kind of external and award winning role models but within school, if you can see, here’s a successful girl who’s doing this subject, that can make a big difference, can’t it?
Dawn Hewitson: Oh, it’s huge, it’s absolutely huge. One of the things that we’ve found from the work that we’ve done at Edge Hill is, we’ve tried various approaches to getting girls interested. So, we did something called Strictly Come Coding.
Craig Barton: I like it.
Dawn Hewitson: Yes. And it was fabulous. It was run by my colleague Dr Paula Beer, who’s an expert in play. She invented the Strictly Come Coding phenomenon. And literally, she did projects where the girls just… they actually picked what they did. And they came and they did it and then they took it back to their schools, and they were then used as a role model.
Craig Barton: Can you imagine I’m in my A-level maths class, and I’ve got eight kids in there, for example, and there’s one girl, seven boys, just for argument’s sake, which wouldn’t be something kind of uncommon, that kind of ratio.
Dawn Hewitson: The story of my life.
Craig Barton: Yes. Now what should I be doing, without going outside of the classroom walls? Just in my day to day… my interactions within lessons, should I be making a conscious effort to ask the girl more questions, fewer questions, make sure I have kind of one to one time during the lesson? Because you’ve got to be careful haven’t you that you don’t want to go too far the other way. It’s a minefield this, help me Dawn, help me.
Dawn Hewitson: I’ll help you. I would use the software that’s in the classroom. You have little… like you can take over the children’s screens where they’re teaching, and you can send them little motivational messages, you know? And look at what they’re doing on screen, without them knowing that you’re looking at what they’re doing. And then just put a little comment that they’re doing well. So, not everybody… it’s not drawing explicit attention to them and making them feel like they’re different.
Craig Barton: I think that’s the point I wanted to make, because it’s patronising that, isn’t it, as well?
Dawn Hewitson: Oh gosh yes, yes.
Craig Barton: And I guess even if I’m in a maths lesson, and I don’t have that technology, it’s just a case of going to have a kind of quiet word isn’t it?
Dawn Hewitson: Yes, yes.
Craig Barton: And I guess it’s knowing your kids. Because we’ve probably both taught enough lads for whom giving them praise, publicly is the best thing in the world for them, and that’s what perhaps they need. But we’ve also taught lads and girls for whom that’s the worst thing in the world, and perhaps just kind of a… just a quiet word saying “You’re doing fantastic” is exactly what they need.
Dawn Hewitson: Yes. Another thing that you can do that’s really, really good, but not too often, is showcase their work to the rest of the class, you know? “This is what Tilly has done”, you know? “Isn’t it [fantastic]? Can we say what we like about it, and what we don’t like about it?” You’ve got to be careful with that because sometimes, like I say, if the boys know that it’s a girls’ piece of work, they can be a little bit critical. But this is a piece of work that has been produced in the class, you know? “What do you think about this?” And Tilly sat there in the class, you know? And then you can say “That’s Tilly’s work” at the end of it, you know? So, that they’ve given an unbiased opinion of the good work that she has done.
But I honestly think that teachers have facilities to send postcards home, they have facilities to give them house points, and reward them. They also have facilities to recognise the work that they’re doing, in terms of giving them awards and recognition in school awards days, and things like that. So, that’s something that you could perhaps consider.
Craig Barton: Can I ask, just one final thing I want to ask is… and this is a dodgy area for me. We’ve kind of touched upon it earlier on with the kind of context that some of the questions we ask our kids are wrapped up in. And I find this in maths. Sometimes there’ll be some kind of problem solving contextual question. And I’ll read the context, and either I’ll think, oh my God, that has no relevance to them whatsoever, or I’ll read it and think, well that’s going to be more interesting if you’re into this particular kind of thing. Now I guess the danger is that in a subject like computing, you try to change the context to make them, for want of a better phrase, kind of girl friendly, and is there a danger, again, you go too far and tip into kind of patronising territory, if that makes sense?
Dawn Hewitson: Yes. I think it needs more gender neutrality.
Craig Barton: Yes. So, tell me about that? What would be an example of a gender neutral context?
Dawn Hewitson: Well they’re all around, aren’t they? Gender neutral contexts are all around.
Craig Barton: Go on, give me some, give me some?
Dawn Hewitson: There are problems that everybody encounters every day. Your mobile phone contract, you know? Your mobile phone data contract. Trying to work out how many text messages you’ve got left, or how many pictures you can send, different things like that. But the problem that you’ve got is that an awful lot of the questions are written by men, you know? The chief examiner for computing for one of the exam boards is a man and he has been there for a lot of years. He’s very good, I’m not criticising him, I know him quite well. But it is… I’ve been an examiner, I’ve been a moderator and all the rest of it, and again those teams in computing are largely men, and that, again, we need to perhaps think about, maybe getting more women to look at the exam papers, and maybe asking them what their opinion is. That perhaps could be something that would maybe redress the gender balance. But you’ve got to think about things in a gender neutral way.
Craig Barton: Okay. Just to wrap things up Dawn. We obviously can’t solve this problem between us. But if we’ve got teachers listening who think, okay, what is something I can do as an individual, to at least make a little difference into starting to redress this problem. What would you advise?
Dawn Hewitson: I’d advise them first of all to get a student teacher in. That sounds like a really… but that buys you some time to think about your curriculum.
Craig Barton: Ah okay, right, I see.
Dawn Hewitson: Yes. It buys you some time to look at what you’re actually delivering and start planning things differently, and looking at how your curriculum is designed, who it’s aimed at, and think about sort of… particularly this time of year, when you’ve got your year 11s that have left, or are on the way to having left, you can actually look at what you’re actually delivering, and look at, is it going to be interesting, you know? Running it by a female member of staff, would you be interested in this, you know? Do you think it’s something? And try to think about what a girl would actually feel like if they were looking at this in the classroom. Just run your ideas past people and discuss them and talk about them, see what girls’ reactions would be to the actual problems that you’ve got within delivering the curriculum.
Craig Barton: Sounds great advice Dawn. I’ve absolutely loved this, I’ve found it fascinating.
Dawn Hewitson: Thank you, thank you.
Craig Barton: It feels like we as teachers have a real responsibility to show students how the things we’re teaching them will be relevant to them in the real world. That’s where we have a chance to really engage them. If you head to the podcast show notes, you’ll find more top tips for promoting all subjects to all genders. Well that’s it, for series one of Inside Exams. There are plenty of episodes to listen back to though. We’ve discovered the secret of writing brilliant multiple-choice questions, what exam access arrangements are available, how mark schemes are written and how grade boundaries awarded, and lots more besides. Plus, there are mini episodes on AQA’s unlocking potential programme, the extended project qualification, and the unit award scheme too.
For now, goodbye.