Exam board to offer digitally assessed GCSE in computer science

Exam board OCR staged a pilot of digital exams earlier this year and will now introduce it for GCSE computer science (Alamy/PA)
Exam board OCR staged a pilot of digital exams earlier this year and will now introduce it for GCSE computer science (Alamy/PA)

An exam board is to offer a digitally assessed GCSE in computer science for pupils starting their course in 2025, in what it described as a UK first.

Jill Duffy, chief executive of OCR, said a pilot of digital exams earlier this year had “shown that digital exams work”.

The exam board said schools can still opt for a paper-based assessment for the OCR computer science qualification if they prefer that approach or do not have the digital infrastructure in place.

Ms Duffy said “other subjects will follow” computer science in offering on-screen assessment, with all of them – including computer science – subject to regulatory approval by Ofqual.

“We’re talking to students and teachers right now to make this work,” she said.

“It’s striking how readily students and teachers have taken to digital mock exams.

“Our pilots show that digital exams are quicker, more suited to how students learn, more sustainable and great learning tools.

“Digital assessment is not a hypothetical future, it’s happening now.”

She said OCR’s pilot of digital exams showed students “appreciate being able to type rather than handwrite their answers, seeing wordcounts and timers as they progress”.

“It brings greater clarity to the marking process,” she continued, adding that digital exams are “far closer to real industry and further study experiences”.

Ms Duffy said schools and teachers need support “so that every student can benefit from world-class digital infrastructure”.

“That means investment, training and guidance to realise this enormous opportunity to build a fairer system,” she said.

OCR said 88,350 students took the computer science GCSE in 2023, a 12% year-on-year increase.

In the new digitally assessed GCSE, students will work in a so-called integrated development environment which allows their digital coding to take place and be assessed accurately.

Computer scientist Professor Simon Peyton Jones, engineering fellow at Fortnite creator Epic Games, said he is “delighted” OCR is offering the digital exam.

“It’s no surprise that so many young people want to study and work in computing,” he said.

“From generative AI to gaming, there is a vast range of fulfilling opportunities.

“Digital assessment makes particular sense for computer science: it brings assessment closer to the real world, and will allow young people to demonstrate their capabilities more authentically.”

Tom Middlehurst, assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We welcome this important step in moving from pen-and-paper exams towards the use of digital assessment.

“This clearly makes perfect sense for computer science GCSE but also paves the way for other subjects, giving students the opportunity to type scripts, making it easier for examiners to mark them, and reducing the reliance on the industrial-scale operation and carbon footprint of printing and transporting millions of exam papers.”

In England, students have been taking digital mocks in OCR’s GCSE computer science for a year, with GCSE English mocks added this month.

Outside the UK, Cambridge International is offering on-screen mocks for IGCSE and A-level science subjects, with several other subjects launching in 2024.

Meanwhile, exam board AQA is aiming to roll out on-screen exams over a period of years and it hopes that students will sit at least one major subject digitally by 2030.

The reading and listening components of GCSE Italian and Polish would be the first to move to digital exams in 2026, according to proposals by the exam board.

A spokesman for Pearson Edexcel said it has been offering a computer science GCSE with an onscreen practical programming exam and then a written paper for the last two years.

They added: “Looking ahead, we’ll continue to increase our offering for onscreen assessment at GCSE level.

“We’ve already been running International GCSE English exams onscreen, with nearly 3,000 students being assessed in this way in the last two years.

“In 2024 we are adding an additional four subjects to be tested onscreen.”

A Department for Education spokesperson: “As part of delivering a world class education through the Advanced British Standard, the Government will consider how to make better use of digital solutions, such as innovations in on-screen assessments. This is part of long-term reforms which are expected to take a decade to deliver in full.

“As the independent regulator of qualifications in England, Ofqual requires that any GCSE or A-level component moving on-screen will be subject to regulatory scrutiny before it can be launched.”