“Why do girls do so much better at school than boys?” is one of those hardy perennials of our national education debate, like term-time holidays, or private school headteachers moaning about social engineering. The gender gap has existed for years in almost every country in the world. There is an argument that, in the wider scheme of things, it’s not particularly important given that men still unfairly dominate the higher echelons of the labour market.
But it does feel as if it’s time to take a closer look. For a start, the gap, in this country at least, is widening – from 7 percentage points on the main five A*-C GCSE measure in 2011 to 10 percentage points last year. And the gap is even greater for poorer children and particularly for the lowest-attaining ethnic groups: white British and black Caribbean. A better understanding of it could help us to close the much wider socio-economic gap in attainment.
New research from Florida, using data on almost 1 million children, shows that coming from a disadvantaged family has a disproportionate impact on male siblings. The researchers were able to rule out any significant differences at birth between the siblings, so the additional negative impact on boys must accrue during childhood. There’s no simple, single cause, but the researchers do find that boys in lower-quality schools are particularly affected.
One possible reason might be the much higher number of boys identified as having special educational needs (SEN). We know that boys are more than twice as likely to be identified as such, and they are almost seven times as likely to have a statement for social, emotional and mental health issues. And this is a particular issue for poorer boys, especially those from white British and black Caribbean families. Incredibly, 42 per cent of all boys on free school meals taking GCSEs last year were classified as having some kind of SEN, and a mere 11 per cent of this group achieved five good GCSEs with English and maths.
The relationship between gender, SEN and attainment is complex and requires much more research; a combination of biological and environmental factors will be at work here, as well as perverse financial incentives that encourage schools to overstate the numbers of pupils with special needs. But, given the evidence from Florida, it’s worth asking why good schools have smaller gender gaps and what lessons we can learn.
One thing all good schools have is a clear and consistent behaviour policy that, based on what we know of boys’ psychology and their need for external structure and rules, seems likely to benefit them more than girls. Moreover, calmer environments make it easier to create a space where taking an interest in learning doesn’t come with the risk of being shamed by one’s peers.
Equally, we know that literacy is the big driver of the gender attainment gap and that the content of reading tasks seems to matter more to boys. Between 1998 and 1999, the gender gap in the Sats reading test seemed to fall significantly. This puzzle was resolved when researchers realised that in the first year the comprehension exercise focused on Second World War evacuees, while in the second year it focused on spiders. This fits with other studies showing that boys perform better on fact-based comprehension tasks than ones dealing with narrative and emotion.
Good schools do a variety of things to help boys. If we want to close the unacceptable attainment gap between rich and poor children, we need to start replicating them more widely.
Sam Freedman is executive director of programmes at Teach First and a former government policy adviser