Last week’s A-level results showed female entrants in physics outperforming their male counterparts, with 71.5 per cent of females achieving a C grade or above compared with 69.6 per cent of males.
There’s absolutely no good reason why someone’s characteristics – gender, sexuality, ethnicity, social background, you name it – should determine whether or not they can achieve great things in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem).
Today’s GCSE results, however, tell a rather different story to those A-level results. Across the country, male students have outperformed their female peers in GCSE physics. There’s been a sizeable overall improvement in male performance and a corresponding decline in female performance.
'Everything rests on exams at the end'
The obvious reason for this is that in England, a new 9 to 1 grading scale has been introduced at the same time as new, “more rigorous” courses, with everything resting on exams at the end of two years of hard work. There is a wealth of evidence demonstrating that girls do better when there’s more regular assessment and coursework – and the GCSE results bear this out.
While there’s been a drop in female achievement in GCSE physics in England, as a direct comparison, in Northern Ireland, where the A* to G grading system and coursework remain in use, girls outperformed boys significantly. Some 61.6 per cent of female Northern Irish physics GCSE students achieved an A grade or better, compared with 50.8 per cent of boys.
It’s quite clear, then, that there’s no innate reason for boys and girls to achieve differently in physics and other Stem subjects. Recent evidence suggests that a lack of confidence is what puts girls off studying “hard” Stem subjects such as maths and physics at A level.
The gender gap in engineering
This matters because we continue to have a wide gender gap in the engineering workforce – the worst in Europe, in fact – and the GCSE students of today will go on to become the engineers of tomorrow. If we don’t attract more girls, we won’t overcome the engineering skills shortage.
Today’s results matter hugely because in two years there could well be a corresponding decline in the numbers of young women achieving A-level physics results, and then an impact on Stem degree achievements.
There are wider lessons to be learned from these results. End-point assessment is a feature of the new apprenticeships standards, and the evidence from this year’s Industry Apprentice Council survey suggests that female engineering apprentices feel far less confident on average about their end-point assessments than their male peers.
Assessment: a new way of thinking
The introduction of the end-point assessment can only make it harder to encourage girls into apprenticeships as an equivalent option to academic routes, especially given that university courses typically offer continuous assessment and a modular approach.
The longer-term solution to this problem is, ultimately, to change our way of thinking. We need to reshape our society so that girls and women aren’t encouraged to underestimate their abilities and undersell their achievements. But that is going to take a lot of time – time that engineering and other Stem sectors simply doesn’t have.
The gender gap in Stem is still there, and the effect of policy change in how we assess young people’s performance is more likely to exacerbate it than not.
We need to think carefully about how we can design an assessment method that enables all young people – male and female – to achieve their full potential, rather than advantaging one gender or the other.
Ann Watson is chief executive of Semta (The Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance)