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Gender gaps yawn in the silly season

THE biggest groan over this summer's exams results should have come from school caretakers. After the panic over the gender gap, a frenzy of furniture reshuffling could ensue as schools either separate boys from girls, or sit them together.

Reporting of results is often over-hyped. This year was no exception. Bored with the old "pass-rate up, standards down" angle, journalists fell hungrily on the gender gap story.

So on A-level day we had, for example, "Boys In Crisis" in The Daily Mirror. For the GCSE results it was "Boys In Crisis II".

The gender gap story was over-baked. I can sympathise with journalists who year after year are faced with an event affecting thousands of readers but which often has no significant news line to it.

However by the time certain Sunday newspapers were claiming, with a little encouragement from a government news release, that schools were set to introduce single-sex teaching the story had gone too far.

The reality is that the pattern was similar to previous years. Girls have been ahead in GCSE since it began and the only change at A-level was that they had nosed ahead even at A grades.

The achievement of boys actually continued to improve. The real problem is not boys, but some boys. Equally, we cannot say that all girls are now doing so well that we can stop worrying about them.

Many boys are doing wonderfully well, some girls still underachieve. Moreover, even after many years of improving GCSE results, too few girls choose to take Mathematics or Physics at A-Level, thus restricting their choice of university courses and careers.

The reality is that, as ever, the problems of under-achievement are a complex mix of class, race and gender. Rushing to deal with gender alone in a simplistic fashion won't help.

To blame "'new laddism" culture also seems wrong. The gender gap goes back much further than Loaded magazine. Changing employment patterns, particularly for 16 year-old school-leavers, are far more significant.

I sympathise too with teachers who were told to do something about boys. Should they not have been congratulated for having done such a good job in over-turning the under-confidence and low aspirations of many girls? P> It may be that attention should focus on assessment methods rather than teaching styles. Although there are signs that girls were already improving their performance before GCSEs were introduced, it is accepted that the use of coursework has given girls' a further boost.

Recent research into the achievement of undergraduates at Oxford University also pinpointed assessment methods as the key to the gender gap. The study looked into why men were more successful in achieving first-class degrees in a system where grades were determined by terminal, timed exams. It concluded that this gender gap in favour of males was down to "the interaction between a gender-linked characteristic, such as anxiety, and demands of an individual academic assessment system".

Similarly, a recent OFSTED report into gender and educational performance found evidence that the tiered papers at GCSE made a difference to boygirl results with a strong possibility that girls were being entered for lower tier exams because of their lack of self-belief.

If different assessment methods produce different results, should we try to minimise the gender effect by using a mixture of methods? But that raises the further issue of whether we should be trying to achieve equal performance between boys and girls.

It's a fundamental question. What are we testing for? In the United States there are no national examinations at age 16 or 18. Do we still need them? Would it be better to devise tests for entry to different forms of further study or employment?

Of course, this does not mean that experiments with teaching methods are not worth trying. But they need to be monitored with appropriate control groups.

It is interesting to note that success has been reported by schools which have both separated the genders and made them sit together. With such conflicting evidence, the idea that Whitehall should tell schools how to arrange the furniture seems dangerous.

I look forward to seeing the results of established research into gender. But the only sure way to stop knee-jerk reactions to the gender gap is to stop publishing results in the "silly season!".

Mike Baker is the BBC's education


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