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Research: Boys learn better when 'outnumbered' by girls

Researchers say policy-makers should ensure better gender balance within schools

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Researchers say policy-makers should ensure better gender balance within schools

Vocational education may not be beneficial to boys' learning because they are less likely to be taught alongside large numbers of girls, research shows.

The study confirms previous findings that boys are more likely to perform well in schools when they are outnumbered by girls.

An analysis of reading test scores of more than 200,000 pupils across the world shows that they do better in schools where more than 60 per cent of the pupils are girls – and this effect is larger for boys than girls. 

The study, published today in the journal School Effectiveness and School Improvement, suggests that characteristics more commonly associated with girls’ academic behaviour, such as higher levels of concentration and motivation to perform well, may help to explain their positive influence.

And since previous research has shown boys are strongly influenced by the school learning environment, they are therefore more likely to benefit from having higher numbers of girls in their school.

The researchers, from the Netherlands, used data from the 2009 Pisa tests of 15-year-olds in more than 8,000 mixed-gender schools.

Boys in schools where more than 60 per cent of pupils are girls scored on average 428 points on the Pisa reading test, whereas boys in schools with fewer girls scored 410 points.

The researchers concluded that vocational education, where children may choose subjects that are heavily weighted towards a particular gender, may lead to uneven numbers of boys and girls and so not be beneficial to boys’ learning.

Policymakers should, therefore, consider introducing measures that encourage an equal gender distribution in schools, the researchers recommend.

table of boys and girls scores
Source: Margriet van Hek et al. full citation below.

“Boys’ poorer reading performance really is a widespread, but unfortunately also understudied, problem,” lead author Dr Margriet van Hek, from Utrecht University, said. “Our study shows that the issue is reinforced when boys attend schools with a predominantly male student population.

“Yet schools can help improve this situation by ensuring a balanced gender distribution in their student population.”

  • Do schools affect girls’ and boys’ reading performance differently? A multilevel study on the gendered effects of school resources and school practices by Margriet van Hek, Gerbert Kraaykamp and Ben Pelzer published in School Effectiveness and School Improvement.

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