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Is English GCSE a girls' own paper?

The crucial GCSE English Language exam is loaded towards girls in 15 out of 20 core components, preventing boys developing their full potential, according to analysts at two of the new universities.

Girls have historically outstripped boys in English and now obtain 16 per cent more grades A-C per pupil. But academics at the Universities of Luton and Hertfordshire believe that female-biased content and assessment methods are partly responsible for the imbalance.

Writing in the British Journal of Curriculum and Assessment, they call on teachers and curriculum planners to help boys acquire the skills and enthusiasm necessary to score good grades.

When researchers asked 20 examiners from one exam board to rank girls' and boys' abilities across 20 different tasks necessary for GCSE English, they found that girls were perceived to do significantly better in the overwhelming majority.

Examiners thought girls had an advantage in: extended pieces; answers to open-ended questions; showing audience awareness; writing reflectively; writing empathetically; writing imaginatively; discussing character motivation; conversationdrama; writing about poems, about literary prose and about drama; preparing for assignments; discussing assignments with teachers; and listening.

Boys scored better only in writing argumentatively; writing factually; and interpreting visual material.

An increasing number of academics are coming to the conclusion that the curriculum at GCSE level plays to female strengths, and that it has probably contributed to the enormous improvement in girls' results over the past decade.

The most reliable evidence to date, compiled by Janette Elwood at London University's Institute of Education and based on the 1994 GCSE results, suggests maths is the only subject where boys outscore girls, and that the gap has been reduced to 2 per cent (grades A-C).

The authors of the new paper, Anne Punter and Helen Burchell, are the latest to argue that the results must lead to changes in teaching strategy.

Boys, they say, should be given more room to develop their potential.

"For example, for coursework, setting a variety of assignments would allow both genders to opt for the type of material and response on which they can each demonstrate their full ability," they write.

"Also teachers' encouragement or even insistence on planning and redrafting of assignments may well benefit those pupils who do not demonstrate their full potential."

The authors point out that boys do well on multiple-choice test papers Q which do not figure in GCSE English. Girls, in contrast, appear to thrive on long pieces of work with open-ended questions: "This might prove to be one of the most crucial factors in explaining the differential performance of girls and boys, bearing in mind that the majority of coursework assignments require extended writing, as do many examination responses.

"It appears that girls flourish when required to amass material for lengthy open-ended tasks which allow them to determine what is relevant to the answer."

Anne Punter, from the faculty of management and education at the University of Luton, believes that the national curriculum, with its moves towards a less diffuse, more skills-based approach to English, may be helping boys but that further, detailed research is required.

"GCSE, with its particular type of assessment, allows girls to maximise their potential," she said this week. "Something needs to be done to teach boys in such a way that this imbalance is addressed: so that they have the opportunity to develop the skills they already have."

This, she said, may involve changing teaching styles and syllabus content as well as assessment methods. "By allowing better access to boys, you may well be able to facilitate more equality of outcome."

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