Every year in August several thousand English and Welsh 16 and 18 year olds await their exam results with eager anticipation. Okay, so for some it might be in dread and for others it might be with indifference or apathy, but GCSE and A-Level results arrive all the same. With these results comes much analysis of statistics, praise and lamentation in almost equal measures over rising pass rates, and much consternation over the apparent increase in the gender gap. But what is the gender gap, why is it happening, and what — if anything — can be done about it?
Simply put the education gender gap is the difference in attainment appreciated between boys and girls. What’s used to measure attainment is the achievement of five A*-C grade GCSEs. (GCSEs being the national exams sat at age 16.) Since 1996, girls have consistently out-performed boys at GCSE level, there being on average a ten percentage point difference in the number of girls gaining five A*-C GCSEs compared to boys. However, it isn’t just at age 16 that girls are out-performing boys, it’s right across the educational spectrum, from primary school to higher education.
If you’re wondering if this isn’t some bizarre conspiracy theory — perhaps promulgated by feminists who want us to think that girls really are better — there have been entire forests dedicated to documenting and studying this phenomenon. Thousands of pounds have been spent on investigating this, by government departments, by educational institutions, and by charitable trusts. What’s more, this isn’t confined to England and Wales (if you’re wondering, the Scottish education system is separate). A study by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) in 27 countries determined that girls as a whole read and write better than boys. Boys are most likely to excel in maths, but the sciences are proving to be an area of roughly equal performance.
Girls’ more impressive performance in English also underpins their general higher performance: being better in English gives them an advantage in other literacy-based subjects. And there are quite a few of those. It’s also worth remembering that coursework counts for a fairly significant percentage of examination grades. Those who do better in reading and writing will do better at coursework. So that would be girls, generally speaking.
Splitting the performance statistics by ethnicity doesn’t really change things. The highest performers are Indian girls, whilst the lowest performers are boys from working class white British backgrounds. Correspondingly, Indian boys are amongst the highest male performers and white working class British girls are amongst the lowest achieving females. It is important to note, though, that ethnicity is universally regarded as having a greater impact on attainment than gender.
Similarly, when data relating to attainment by social class are analysed, boys in receipt of free school meals (the general indicator of poverty, and therefore the lowest socio-economic grouping) are performing more poorly than girls receiving free school meals. However, it cannot and should not be overlooked that girls receiving free school meals are also underachieving quite substantially when compared to girls from a higher socio-economic background. This correlation between lower levels of achievement and lower socio-economic class is also more profound than the gender gap.
Aside from ethnicity and social class having a greater impact on attainment than gender, it doesn’t alter the fact that whichever way you look at it, girls are doing better.
Top, middle, or bottom set?
So we know that girls are doing better, and that their higher levels of achievement are most likely linked to their increased capability in English, but can we delve any deeper?
Even before children make it into a classroom, girls are indicating that they are better set up for higher achievement. They have superior social and cognitive skills, thereby establishing themselves as better prepared to participate in classroom life. It’s also more likely that parents will read to and sing nursery rhymes with their daughters than their sons, therefore exposing girls to literacy-based ideas more than boys.
Special Educational Needs
Boys have more special educational needs than girls. A lot more. 70% of children with identified special educational needs are boys. Boys are nine times more likely to be on the autistic spectrum and four times more likely to have some form of behavioural, emotional, and social difficulty. When it comes to special educational needs, there is no stronger indication than gender.
Sugar and spice and all things nice; rats and snails and puppy dogs’ tails
Boys are more badly behaved, with 80% of children permanently excluded from school being male. Exclusion rates across ethnic groups vary insubstantially, but socio-economic background does have an impact, with pupils who receive free school meals three times more likely to be excluded from school. All the same, the increased disruption to their educations that boys experience when compared to girls must, somewhere, be reflected in their poorer performance.
Single-sex education is an ideal that divides parents and those involved in education quite vehemently: you seem to be either a staunch supporter or a rabid opposer. I’m oddly ambivalent towards it, and in terms of gender achievement, there is no conclusive evidence of benefit or detriment in either direction. What can be said for single-sex education is that it dismantles the gender stereotypes that are often applied to subjects. Young people attending single-sex schools are less likely to conform to gender stereotypical subject choices.
In crowds and loners
Girls react better to the structure and ethos of the school environment. They are more motivated and more co-operative, so they are more attuned to achieve. There seems to be an inherent struggle between boys and structured learning environments. Then we add to that the significant boy culture dictating that school is not cool, and neither is reading. If they want to be in with the in crowd, they’re on a headlong collision course with achievement.
Could do better?
Is there a solution? In short, no. That is unless we want to actively inhibit girls’ learning, and I think you might find some fairly strong opposition to that suggestion. Whatever we do to raise the attainment of boys — be it through boy-friendly pedagogies or teaching methods — it is just as likely to appeal to and therefore benefit girls, so it wouldn’t close the gap.
We’ve given girls an educational place to stand: are they about to move the world?
- Burgess, McConnel, Propper, Wilson: Girls rock, boys roll: An analysis of the age 14-16 gender gap in English schools, Bristol, 2004.
- Department for Education and Skills: Gender and education: the evidence on pupils in England, 2007.
- Ofsted: Gender Equality Scheme, forthcoming.
- Younger and Warrington: Raising boys' achievement, Cambridge, 2004.