Might GCSE reforms help boys


Today, boys generally underperform relative to girls in schools throughout the industrialized world.   So, the gender attainment gap is certainly  not a problem exclusive to this country (See OECD Pisa). Nor is the ‘gender gap’  a new problem; if raw scores in the 11+ had been used to determine selection, then grammar schools in the 50s and 60s would have been populated almost exclusively by girls.

In the 2011 GCSE results Girls opened up the biggest achievement gap over their male classmates in the top grades at GCSE since the A* was introduced.  Some 19.8% of boys entries were awarded an A* or an A in 2011 compared with 26.5% of girls entries – a gap of 6.7 percentage points.  In 2012, the number of entries achieving the A* grade was down 0.5 percentage points, but with girls  still significantly outperforming boys (girls 8.7% and boys 6.0%).  At A*-C, the proportion securing these grades was down 0.4 percentage points with girls outperforming boys by a greater margin year-on-year (7.5 percentage point margin in 2011 and 7.9 percentage points in 2012).

Many reasons are given for this.  For example, the school environment may channel conceptions of masculinity in peer culture, fostering or inhibiting boys’ development of anti-school attitudes and behaviour.  In short, its uncool  for boys to be seen to be trying at school , to comply or to conform. It is known that girls mature quicker than boys and so take responsibility earlier. Alongside this, boys tend to blame poor performance on externalised factors (‘bad teaching’, ‘wrong test questions’), while girls tend to blame themselves and their competence, and work harder in consequence to improve and to overcome problems .Given the effect teachers have on attainment, perhaps they are not using the right approaches to getting the best out of boys. Maybe it’s the curriculum, seen as unrelated to the real world or things that really engage boys attention –or is it  the way boys are examined? Boring, politically correct and formulaic  textbooks  probably contribute too. Could it also have  something to do with the lack of role models-encouraging boys to persevere and knuckle down to work. Certainly experts such as Tony Sewell see this as a major factor in Afro-Caribbean boys under performance ( working class white boys are the worst performers).  Maybe boys need to be taught better  to cope with and mange  adversity,  and to foster resilience?  We also know that individuals educational trajectory is formed very early on, so more attention should be paid to the kind of early interventions that work to help pre-school boys.

What is particularly intriguing though is the idea that the GCSE format  favours girls .Over the past two and a half decades girls have steadily outperformed, with 83.3% now gaining at least five A-C grades at GCSE, compared with 75.8% of boys.  Crucially for university chances, girls also score more of the highest grades. This gap seems to have emerged roughly from the time GCSEs were introduced, suggesting girls have done well out of continuous assessment, modularity, and so on. .Research has suggested that boys prefer traditional exam-based courses while girls prefer coursework, which is based over a prolonged period and does not depend on performance on a single day.

The new EBC format anticipates a one off exam ,no modules and limited coursework-so maybe the  gender gap will begin to narrow after its introduction?



  1. This is a really complex issue, but there’s little doubt pre-school efforts would have the most immediate effect. For what it’s worth I also suspect there has been a major problem with the kinds of books educators have offered boys. Until very recently there has been an absolute dearth of engaging texts for boys and publishers have packed their lists with what they see as socially improving literature. Have a close look at something like the Oxford Reading Tree for example, sodden with politically correct characters and messages but for thousands of boys, whose parents have no interest, their first real encounter with books and reading. Writers like Frank Cottrell Boyce and Charlie Higson have tried to counter things but the rot is very deep set.

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