A ‘Worrying’ Trend or a Cause for Celebration? Girls’ Exam Success at 16

Once more the gap between girls’ and boys’ GCSE results (taken at 16) has been in the UK news (the results in Scotland were announced earlier in the year and did not attract the same kind of attention). Although it cannot be said that this has been the usual slow news Summer – we have had so far the Norwegian killings, riots and their aftermath in England, uprisings in Libya and Syria, stock market turbulence etc. etc. – this is generally the time of the year when journalists are looking for a story and try to make one up with the publication of the GCSE results. It is also the time of year when straw dogs are set up to be knocked down.  In my last post I noted how lone mothers and women teachers were being blamed for the riots. Well they are also being blamed for boys’ relative lower performance compared with girls, although other factors mentioned include over-use of course-work and grade inflation.

We are told that girls are racing ahead of boys at ‘worrying’ speed, and that they have outperformed boys in almost every subject. For example, a record 26.5% of girls’ entry in all subjects achieved A* or A grade, compared to 19.8, for boys – a gender gap of 6.7%, apparently the largest ever; and nearly three-quarters (73.5%) of girls who took an exam achieved a C compared to 66% for boys. Behaving against stereotype, girls also significantly increased their achievement of top grades in the sciences over last year. Other trends identified are a slight increase in pass rates overall compared to last year, a drop in the number of students studying foreign languages, significant rises in science due perhaps to some successful TV science programmes, and a waning popularity of history and geography.

Girls however are not congratulated on their achievement.  Rather the system is blamed for this ‘unnatural’ situation. For example, Alan Smithers, Professor at Buckingham University , and not as far as I know an expert on gender but always ready with a sound-bite, states that ‘consistent application to schoolwork is more often a characteristic of girls’ and that ‘boys tend to show up better in end-of-course examinations’. Meanwhile, the government seeks to put more ‘rigour’ in the examination system by scrapping modular exams which allow students to accumulate qualifications, instituting more end-of-course assessment and putting more emphasis on grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Similarly, criticism of the system is implied in The Telegraph newspaper’s quiz about which of the following is most likely to ‘ensure that pupils leave school with the skills they need to cope in the workplace’. Should, the quiz asks:

– GCSE marks for poor spelling and grammar be given?

– the number of compulsory subjects at GCSE be extended?

– incentives be introduced for pupils taking ‘harder’ subjects?

– league tables be scrapped?

– grammar schools be brought back?

– formal work experience be made part of the curriculum?

– schools be allowed to set their own curriculum?

So what can we make of these patterns, and in particular, girls’ higher examination achievement? First of all, we need to know which girls and which boys are succeeding and failing. We know that many boys do very well in examinations – so who of them are pulling boys’ overall performance downwards? And second, we need to know why. My take is that girls have tended to invest more in education when given the opportunity, and see it, much more than boys, as a chance for social mobility – although as Mary Evans who is a gender specialist says, we need to be wary of equating success in examination results with greater gender equality.  Indeed as the Fawcett Society recently stated, if we think we are all equal, we need to think again because:

– Men outnumber women four to one in parliament

– 10% of executive directors of top FTSE 100 companies are women

– Women earn on average 16.4% less than men for full-time work

– 64% low paid workers are women

– One in five women live in poverty, and two third of pensioners living in poverty are women

– 45% women in England and Wale experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

And there is no real evidence that these inequalities are diminishing. Indeed, they may well get more marked due to deteriorating economic circumstances in Britain and world-wide. So what do you think about the latest exam result?  Should this be a time of celebration, reflection or alarm? Your view on this would be much appreciated.

Gaby Weiner, (GEA Chair)


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