‘Huge gender gap’ in languages GCSE results

Think tank calls on government to ‘urgently clarify’ how it intends to address the huge gender gap in languages performance

MFL gender gap

Girls are more than twice as likely as boys to achieve a pass in GCSE languages, according to a new study published today.

The report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that the gender gap is so pronounced that gender is a stronger predictor of success in languages than a pupil’s level of disadvantage – and that a girl from a poorer background is more likely to outperform a boy from a more affluent background.  

Bobbie Mills, report author and senior researcher at the EPI, said the government must “urgently clarify” how it intends to address the huge gender gap in languages.


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He said: “There is no evidence that current initiatives to improve foreign language entries will narrow this divide. 

"Foreign languages stand out among the government’s core EBacc [English Baccalaureate] group as the only subject with a large gender divide. Boys trail girls on entries into GCSE languages, while those that do take up the subject remain far behind on performance”.  

Just 38 per cent of boys sat GCSE languages in 2018, compared with 50 per cent of all girls, according to EPI.

But the report, commissioned by the British Council, also examines those schools where boys are “bucking the trends” and considers what they are doing to boost participation and performance.

One approach identified by such schools was that they had more inclusive policies towards foreign languages, which promoted learning of the subject for all abilities and backgrounds.

Recommendations by EPI include that the exam regulator Ofqual continues to address the difficulty of the assessment of language GCSEs to enable more inclusive language learning, and that it should monitor the impact of its recent intervention to adjust French and German grading, and consider whether similar adjustments are needed for other languages.

EPI also says there needs to be more study into the benefits of language learning for young people with a focus on cross-curricular benefits and its role in improving literacy and numeracy.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools are doing their utmost to address these issues and we welcome the research findings in this report in respect of languages.

“There is a particular problem with the take-up of languages because the government has tried to drive up entry rates through the use of school performance measures without addressing the fact that schools are desperately short of teachers and funding, and the grading of language GCSEs and A levels is too severe. 

“We are pleased that exams regulator Ofqual has recently decided to make grading less severe in GCSE French and German and we are continuing to press for similar action at A level. Beyond this we need a national strategy to revive languages which is based on encouraging a love of these subjects and which is properly resourced in terms of teachers and funding.”

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

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