Linda Blackburne on a researcher's challenge to a gender stereotype. Coursework plays only a small role in explaining why girls do better than boys at GCSE English and are catching up in mathematics, a London conference was told last week.
Jannette Elwood, a lecturer and researcher at London's Institute of Education, said teacher and pupil expectations, the level at which teenagers were entered for the exam and syllabus variations were more likely to explain the differences in boys' and girls' results.
Her analysis is based on Government-funded research carried out by London Examinations and the National Foundation for Educational Research.
Data for the study, which will be published next month, came from nearly 3,000 exam scripts - the 1991 results of all London Examinations' GCSE English and maths candidates - 200 questionnaire responses of school departmental heads and case studies.
Ms Elwood used 1991 statistics because coursework accounted for a substantial percentage of the GCSE that year. The Government's decision to reduce coursework took effect from 1992 and in June last year it accounted for only 20 per cent of the English exam.
Many people believed that while coursework generally benefited pupils it was the girls who gained the most from it, Ms Elwood told the conference which was held at the London Institute.
But when she analysed a 1991 English syllabus which split the marks evenly between coursework and written exams, she found that coursework had only a limited effect on girls' overall marks.
And said Ms Elwood: "For boys, coursework offers slightly more discrimination than the exam component. For girls, both the coursework and exam component make much the same contribution to the final grade. Thus, it is possible to argue, that coursework makes a slightly larger contribution for boys at the subject level, than for girls.
"Coursework does, however, seem to contribute more to the total mark as grades decrease, but this does not appear to be any different for girls or boys.
"For English, prior to 1994, GCSE statistics indicated that the gender gap was most pronounced for syllabuses that were not 100 per cent assessed by coursework.
"The results from the 1994 GCSE have shown that the gap remains as wide in English even with a 40 per cent coursework maximum imposed."
Ms Elwood also pointed out that girls were catching up with boys in maths. Traditionally, boys have done better at GCSE maths but the gap has now narrowed to boys gaining only 2 per cent more grades A-C than girls.
In 1994 the grading of maths lower, middle and higher papers was changed to allow a maximum grade B in the middle tier and a minimum grade C in the higher tier. Any candidate not achieving the lowest restricted grade on any tier is unclassified.
She said: "The gap in performance may be decreasing but more girls than boys are entered for the middle tier - in 1994, 59 per cent of all female entries were for the middle tier. Entry into this tier acts as a 'safety option', providing the key grade C while avoiding the risks of being unclassified if performance falls below the minimum grade on the higher tier."
Ms Elwood also argued that attempts to explain girls' improved maths GCSE results in terms of the increased coursework component were "misplaced".