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Gender gap gets the big squeeze

David Henderson finds secondaries can buck the exam dominance of girls

At Mearns Castle High in Newton Mearns, boys are closing the attainment gap on girls, as they are across East Renfrewshire. It is no accident.

The performance gender gap has halved since the launch of the initiative to target underachievement among boys. At authority level, the current gap is 6 percentage points in three or more Highers at A-C grades: 61 per cent for girls and and 55 per cent for boys.

Alan McGinlay, Mearns Castle's headteacher, says that the school is in line with others in making inroads into the national pattern of underachievement among boys. The gap has narrowed since he took over as head four and a half years ago.

"At a strategic level, we have raised awareness among staff that there are concerns about boys' performance and differences in how boys learn. We have brought in experts to explain the differences at in-service days and staff realise we are serious about it. It can lead them to amend their lesson plans," Mr McGinlay says.

The school has repeatedly raised the issue with parents who are advised that sons are very likely to take notes or do their homework in different ways to daughters and that there are differences in how they work.

At subject level, all departments have to include one small initiative each year on boys' underachievement as part of the development plan.

Mr McGinlay says: "There is no broad brush approach and what one department does can be quite different from another."

One subject may focus on raised expectations while another concentrates on homework or breaking lessons up into more manageable chunks. "Boys learn better in small chunks," Mr McGinlay points out.

Other strategies might include tapping into boys' interest in challenge by running end of lesson quizzes to sum up learning or varying the seating plans in class, such as boy-girl or two boys and two girls. It is important that pupils do not sit where they want.

Mearns Castle, like others, has experimented with single-sex classes in S3 and S4 for maths and English for some groups which have been experiencing difficulties, but it is not a uniform annual policy. "It works quite well," Mr McGinlay says. The school has also focused on regular attendance and in most groups boys are marginally better attenders. "Efforts to get boys to school could have an effect," the head believes.

In neighbouring Glasgow, the city council's Hillhead High confounds the national trend. Ken Cunningham, Hillhead's headteacher, says that boys outperform girls in most subjects and years but that may be partly a statistical quirk because there are more boys than girls at the school.

Notre Dame High, which is all-girls, attracts potential recruits.

Mr Cunningham insists there is no single factor that gives boys the advantage. Like Mearns Castle, Hillhead has absorbed the message about boys' preferred learning styles and tried to adjust lessons accordingly.

But of equal importance may be the whole-school drive on activities such as enterprise, confidence-raising and sport.

Pupils can regularly choose from more than 24 after-school sports. Friday afternoons are devoted to the MTA (minority time activity programme) and more than 60 activities.

"I think how you raise results, whether it's the boys and girls or the ethnic issue, you have to target the individual and encourage the individual. Everything follows from that," Mr Cunningham says.

Evidence from Mearns Castle and Hillhead High reflects the national focus on attainment and improved methods of teaching and learning. In East Ayrshire, that effort is mirrored in improved Higher results. The percentage of boys achieving one, three or five Higher awards has increased while the percentage for girls has remained constant.

At Advanced Higher, the percentage of boys achieving at least one award has increased from 2002, against a steady performance by girls over the past five years.

But the story in Aberdeen perhaps tells a more normal tale. The rate of improvement in the percentage of pupils achieving five or more awards at level 5 or better since 2000 has been twice as fast for girls as boys. The boys improved from 29 per cent in 2000 to 31 per cent in 2004. Girls improved from 34 per cent in 2000 to 39 per cent in 2004.


Consistency of standards from year to year is the hallmark of results in the independent sector, according to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools.

The A-C pass rate at Higher in S5 is 90 per cent, with the percentage of A passes rising from 48 per cent to 49 per cent. "This reflects the high quality of teaching, the support available all year round and the effort put in by the pupils," the council states.

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