GIRLS have seized one of the few remaining areas of male supremacy in the exam system.
An analysis of this year's Advanced Extension Award results, which test the brightest upper sixth-formers, reveals that for the first time, a higher proportions of girls got top grades than boys.
A total of 17.8 per cent of girls were awarded distinctions, compared to 16.7 per cent of boys. A further 32.3 per cent of girls received a merit, compared to 32.1 per cent of boys.
Last year, the first year of the extension award, boys did better, bucking the trend of girls outperforming them at A-level, GCSE, and key stages 1, 2 and 3.
However, this year's results should be treated with caution, as boys were actually ahead of girls in 10 of the 16 subjects. Girls' overall advantage is explained by the fact that their most popular subject was English, which had relatively high distinction and merit rates, whereas for boys it was maths and physics, which had low rates.
Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool university said boys were still performing better in the tests than in A-levels and GCSE, because they were traditional exam-only assessments, which played to boys' strengths. But, he added: "The clear advantage the boys had last year has not held as strong."
Meanwhile, there was a new twist in the row over whether A-level subjects such as psychology are easier than others, as exam boards said the case had never been proven.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, provoked a row after highlighting the "hidden scandal" of students choosing subjects like media studies to improve their university chances.
But the research on which his claims were based is controversial. Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon, then of Newcastle university, used four statistical analyses of A-level and GCSE results to claim, in 1994, that subjects such as maths and science were harder.
But others have declared her results "invalid". Writing in the Oxford Review of Education, Harvey Goldstein of London's Institute of Education and Michael Cresswell of the AQA exam board, criticised the research for taking little account of factors such as differences in teaching standards between subjects.
Former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson's report on the process for deciding grade boundaries in this year's A-levels this week concluded students could have confidence in the system.
But he said having to take all of a subject's AS papers in one day was tiring pupils.
Students in private schools achieved double the number of As at A-level than was average for candidates in Britain.
Results from nearly 500 schools in the Independent Schools Council showed that 43 per cent of entries were awarded an A, compared with 21.6 per cent nationally.
* Psychology is now the third most popular subject at AS-level, not A-level, as The TES said last week.
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