The Belonging strand of the Gender Balance in Computing programme is based on research that suggests that exposure to positive role models and parental encouragement can help girls feel like computing is a subject where they belong. To explore this further, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and WISE designed and ran interventions for Year 5 pupils (aged 9–10). A total of 175 schools participated in the interventions between September 2021 and February 2022.
This project was designed as a randomised controlled trial in which schools were randomly assigned to one of three groups: two treatment and one control. The control group consisted of schools that taught their usual computing lessons. The two treatment groups were used to test the impact of two different interventions:
My Skills My Life
One treatment group participated in an intervention called “My Skills My Life”, which was adapted for primary-aged pupils and delivered by WISE. The intervention addressed girls’ self-identification through ten lessons highlighting the importance of STEM careers and by sharing the experiences of women working in various STEM professions. The aim was to increase young girls’ perception of computing by engaging and interacting with female role models from computing and closely related STEM professions.
The other treatment group took part in the intervention titled “Code Stars”, which was designed by BIT. This intervention took place over 12 weeks and involved an initial one-off lesson on artificial intelligence (AI), delivered by teachers. The lesson was accompanied by a homework task for pupils to complete with their parents or carers. There was a final follow-up lesson with teachers. As part of the intervention design, between the two lessons, participating schools were asked to send weekly prompts to the pupils’ parents or carers to encourage conversations about the AI lesson and about computing and its role in society more generally.
"It has helped children aspire to bigger careers — most of them want to work in factories or just not work at all and go on benefits because that's what their parents do. This programme has opened their eyes to other things." Primary teacher (report, p.45)
We used pupil surveys and teacher feedback to measure the impact of the Belonging interventions and explore emerging themes from the classroom.
What we learnt
From the randomised controlled trial itself:
- There was no statistically significant evidence that either intervention increased girls’ intention to study computer science at GCSE or had a positive effect on their attitudes towards computing. However, teacher and pupil feedback showed that both interventions were generally engaging and well received.
- Girls’ stated intention to study computing was 5.6 percentage points higher in the Code Stars intervention group than in the control group. This difference was statistically significant in some, although not all, of the analysis, implying that we cannot rule out that this result was due to chance, rather than as a result of the programme.
From the teachers’ feedback about the interventions:
- The My Skills My Life intervention had a very positive reception from teachers, although this did not translate into measurable evidence of impact on pupil outcomes.
- Some teachers reported observing some of the intended mechanisms of impact. These included increased pupil interest and motivation to learn more about computing careers, increased awareness of computing and STEM careers that could fit their skills and preferences, and increased confidence with computing.
- The lessons from the My Skills My Life intervention needed minor adjustments to make them fit in the hour allotted to computing classes. Teachers appreciated the level of detail in the lesson plans.
- The lessons from the Code Stars intervention were described as fun and engaging.
- COVID-19 influenced the Code Stars intervention components that involved messaging parents. Originally planned to be sent out directly by BIT, the messaging prompts were instead shared with teachers in a variety of formats, to give teachers more flexibility during COVID-19-related restrictions. This likely led to fewer messages being sent to parents and/or the messages being sent at a reduced frequency.
- Code Stars lesson prompts were found to be easy to follow and constructive.
- Some teachers felt that additional AI-themed lessons may substantially improve girls’ interest in computing.
- Feedback from interviewed teachers suggested that COVID-19 caused disruption to the implementation of both interventions.
From the independent evaluators’ further recommendations:
- Reduced content and additional guidance for teachers could facilitate delivery of the My Skills My Life intervention.
- Providing female pupils with more opportunities to directly interact with female role models may provide more long-term engagement in computing.
- In the original design of Code Stars, it was envisioned that messages to parents would be sent via SMS messages centrally by the school. This had to be revised to teachers individually sending messages. This revision was based on feedback from schools relating to the administrative tasks this would add during an already challenging COVID-19 context. Reviewing the communication mechanism for these messages to ensure they are consistently sent and increasing the number of lessons could improve the impact.
- Other additional refinements that could be explored include examining how these interventions could link to interventions that address other barriers to girls studying computing.