Gender gap yawns wider in schools

6th July 2007 at 01:00
The achievement gap between the sexes now stretches across the board and at every age, the first comprehensive study reveals

GIRLS ARE outperforming boys in almost every subject at GCSE, according to a government report that lays bare the true extent of the achievement gap between the sexes.

Girls' achievement starts to outstrip boys in the nursery and does so increasingly until they are 16, when they gain on average 10 per cent higher grades than boys. Now, for the first time, they are pulling ahead in subjects traditionally dominated by males, such as maths and design and technology.

The research, from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, is the first comprehensive look at the available data on the gender gap. It shows that girls' achievement outstrips boys' across the board and at every age and will provide fresh fuel for the debate about male underachievement.

Girls now get better GCSE grades in maths (by two percentage points), double science and design and technology. The only subjects in which boys still outperform girls by a tiny margin are biology and physics. However, girls are more likely to get the highest grades, A and A*, and are less likely to get the lowest grades, such as G.

The gender gap persists at A-level. Not only are girls more likely to stay on in full-time education but their grades are on average four percentage points ahead of boys'. Women are also more likely to proceed to higher education.

At the foundation stage, girls outperform boys in English and, by a smaller margin, in maths. At primary school the gap between girls' and boys' reading skills grows, from nine percentage points at key stage 1 to 15 percentage points at key stage 3 in secondary school.

The historical figures put these trends in perspective. For most of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, girls did better in English and boys excelled in maths, but the gap was less marked and consistent. After the introduction of GCSEs in 1988 girls' performance at 16 began to improve more rapidly, and since 1995 the gap has stabilised at 10 percentage points. Although boys' results have improved, girls have kept their lead.

The reasons for the disparity are hotly debated. Global comparisons such as the Programme for International Student Assessment show that girls score better for reading in all countries and boys better for maths in about half.

Sue Palmer, a former headteacher and the author of Toxic Childhood, who is writing a book about the phenomenon, believes that the early start children make to formal education in England allows girls to capitalise on their greater maturity.

"Girls are better equipped to succeed at that age," she said. "They have better language development, better small-scale motor control so they can wield a pencil and they are better developed emo-tionally. It makes them think school is something they can do."

Other reasons put forward for the gender gap include the predominance of female staff in primary schools and a curriculum that supposedly plays to girls' strengths.

Andy Yarrow, head of Hornsey school for girls in north London a comprehensive with above average results of 63 per cent five A*-Cs at GCSE and an Outstanding rating from Ofsted agrees that girls have a more mature approach to hard work, particularly coursework. "They will spend time on techniques such as making revision cards and memorising facts," he said.

But it is worth noting that girls have maintained their lead even as GCSE coursework has been cut. For this reason Dr Alice Sullivan, a research fellow at the Institute of Education in London, regards all the brow-furrowing over girls' soaring success as "deeply patronising".

"The fact is girls were doing slightly better than boys at O-level back in the 1950s. Then they had far less incentive or opportunity," she said. "It's not surprising that, given the huge changes in society and the labour market, they have made significant strides.

"But still when boys do well it's because they're brilliant; when girls succeed it's because they're unimaginative and well-behaved."

Stephen Gorard, professor of education at York University, believes the statistical unreliability of O-level results could have been disguising a gender gap for even longer: girls now stay in education longer and study a wider variety of subjects. Also, prior to the introduction of GCSEs, the 11 plus pass mark was lower for boys in some areas to preserve the gender balance at grammar schools, so not all able girls would have received a grammar school education.

Gender and Education: the evidence on pupils in England, DCSF

Boys worse at writing, page 14

Girls on top

More than 63 per cent of girls get five GCSEs at grade C and above compared with 54 per cent of boys

Girls are more likely to get a maths GCSE at grade C and above than boys: 57 per cent, compared with 55 per cent

The gap between girls and boys at English GCSE is 14 per cent

Girls lead by 4 per cent in A-level passes

In A-level maths, 46 per cent of girls reach grade A compared with 42 per cent of boys

In primary school, girls lead boys in all 13 scales of the foundation stage

At key stage 1, girls lead in reading, writing, English and maths; at key stage 2 they lead in English but not maths

Girls are ahead in both English and maths at the end of key stage 3

Only 30 per cent of children identified as having special needs are girls

Only 20 per cent of children permanently excluded are girls

Boys edge ahead of girls only in

physics and biological sciences

Percentage of pupils entered gaining GCSE A*-C grades

Boys Girls Gender Gap

Textiles 38 70 32

Art and Design 59 78 19

D T: Food Technology 47 64 17

English 55 69 14

Drama 63 76 13

Humanities 40 52 12

English Literature 61 73 12

Religious Studies 63 75 12

French 58 69 11

German 63 74 11

Spanish 62 71 9

Information Technology 57 65 8

Music 69 76 7

Geography 63 69 6

History 63 69 6

Business Studies 58 63 5

Mathematics 55 57 2

Double Award Science 56 58 2

Physical Education 60 61 1

Chemistry 91 91 0

Physics 92 91 - 1

Biological Sciences 90 89 - 1

Note: Figures show A*-C attainment as a percentage of those entered for the exam

Source: DCSF

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