GCSEs 2019: Girls predicted to maintain gender gulf

Professor Alan Smithers expects girls to preserve their lead over boys although gap may narrow

Catherine Lough


Girls will continue to outperform boys at GCSE when results are released on Thursday, according to a report from an academic published this week.

Professor Alan Smithers, from the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said he predicted girls would continue to achieve higher rates of GCSE passes, as well as attaining a greater proportion of the top grades of 7 and above.

Related: GCSE results: Boys narrow gap with girls

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“Girls consistently perform above boys at GCSE,” he said. “They are ahead at grade 4 [the grade considered by the Department of Education to be a standard pass] and they are ahead at grade 7 [equivalent to a grade A].”

However, Professor Smithers said that boys would continue to outperform girls in gaining the top grades of 7 and above in GCSE maths.

He also said boys may continue to narrow the gap when it comes to attaining top grades.

“In the reformed GCSEs in 2018, which were wholly or mainly examined at the end of the course, boys began to claw back some of the lead at top grades,” he said.

“Another 11 subjects organised on that basis were taken this year, and if that improvement wasn’t a one-off we can expect boys biting back a bit of the gap,” he said.

Last year, the GCSE gender gap narrowed slightly, with a greater proportion of boys achieving an A/7 grade or above, as well as a higher percentage of boys attaining a C/4 and above.

In 2018, 17.2 per cent of male entries were awarded a grade 7 and above – an increase of 0.8 percentage points from the previous year – compared with 23.7 per cent of female entries.

And 62.3 per cent of male entries achieved a grade C/4 or above – compared with 61.6 per cent in 2017 – while 71.4 per cent of girls achieved this threshold in 2018.

Some commentators suggested this was due to the overhaul of the GCSE system, with more qualifications assessed through linear exams instead of coursework. Boys are thought to perform better in exams and end-of-course assessments. 

However, while this showed boys had made more rapid progress than girls under the new qualifications, the gender gap at GCSE remains significant.

In 2018, the gap between girls and boys at grade A/7 was 6.5 percentage points, while the gap at grade C/4 was 9.1 percentage points.

Professor Smithers attributed this gap to differences in the range of scores achieved by girls and boys.

“Across a wide variety of psychological tests and measures, the scores of males and females have been found to be different," he said. "The scores of females tend to bunch around the mean, whereas those of males are spread more widely so there are more at the top and the bottom."

This meant that in an easier exam, those bunching around the middle would tend to do well. As the reformed exams are more challenging, a wider spread of attainment is rewarded, explaining how boys may be faring better at the top grades than they are at the C/4 pass mark.

Professor Smithers said this year’s results might show boys had continued to make more rapid progress than girls, leading to a narrowed gender gap, but that girls would continue to outperform boys overall.

He added that boys were likely to maintain their lead over girls in achieving the highest grades in GCSE maths.

Last year, 4.2 per cent of boys achieved a grade 9 in their maths GCSE, compared with 3 per cent of girls, while 20.9 per cent of boys attained grade 7 and above in the subject, compared with 19.1 per cent of girls.

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