Morning registration

Every year in August several thousand English and Welsh 16 and 18 year olds await their exam results with eager anticipation. Okay, so for some it might be in dread and for others it might be with indifference or apathy, but GCSE and A-Level results arrive all the same. With these results comes much analysis of statistics, praise and lamentation in almost equal measures over rising pass rates, and much consternation over the apparent increase in the gender gap. But what is the gender gap, why is it happening, and what — if anything — can be done about it?


Simply put the education gender gap is the difference in attainment appreciated between boys and girls. What’s used to measure attainment is the achievement of five A*-C grade GCSEs. (GCSEs being the national exams sat at age 16.) Since 1996, girls have consistently out-performed boys at GCSE level, there being on average a ten percentage point difference in the number of girls gaining five A*-C GCSEs compared to boys. However, it isn’t just at age 16 that girls are out-performing boys, it’s right across the educational spectrum, from primary school to higher education.

If you’re wondering if this isn’t some bizarre conspiracy theory — perhaps promulgated by feminists who want us to think that girls really are better — there have been entire forests dedicated to documenting and studying this phenomenon. Thousands of pounds have been spent on investigating this, by government departments, by educational institutions, and by charitable trusts. What’s more, this isn’t confined to England and Wales (if you’re wondering, the Scottish education system is separate). A study by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) in 27 countries determined that girls as a whole read and write better than boys. Boys are most likely to excel in maths, but the sciences are proving to be an area of roughly equal performance.

Girls’ more impressive performance in English also underpins their general higher performance: being better in English gives them an advantage in other literacy-based subjects. And there are quite a few of those. It’s also worth remembering that coursework counts for a fairly significant percentage of examination grades. Those who do better in reading and writing will do better at coursework. So that would be girls, generally speaking.

Splitting the performance statistics by ethnicity doesn’t really change things. The highest performers are Indian girls, whilst the lowest performers are boys from working class white British backgrounds. Correspondingly, Indian boys are amongst the highest male performers and white working class British girls are amongst the lowest achieving females. It is important to note, though, that ethnicity is universally regarded as having a greater impact on attainment than gender.

Similarly, when data relating to attainment by social class are analysed, boys in receipt of free school meals (the general indicator of poverty, and therefore the lowest socio-economic grouping) are performing more poorly than girls receiving free school meals. However, it cannot and should not be overlooked that girls receiving free school meals are also underachieving quite substantially when compared to girls from a higher socio-economic background. This correlation between lower levels of achievement and lower socio-economic class is also more profound than the gender gap.

Aside from ethnicity and social class having a greater impact on attainment than gender, it doesn’t alter the fact that whichever way you look at it, girls are doing better.

Top, middle, or bottom set?

So we know that girls are doing better, and that their higher levels of achievement are most likely linked to their increased capability in English, but can we delve any deeper?

Rock-a-bye baby

Even before children make it into a classroom, girls are indicating that they are better set up for higher achievement. They have superior social and cognitive skills, thereby establishing themselves as better prepared to participate in classroom life. It’s also more likely that parents will read to and sing nursery rhymes with their daughters than their sons, therefore exposing girls to literacy-based ideas more than boys.

Special Educational Needs

Boys have more special educational needs than girls. A lot more. 70% of children with identified special educational needs are boys. Boys are nine times more likely to be on the autistic spectrum and four times more likely to have some form of behavioural, emotional, and social difficulty. When it comes to special educational needs, there is no stronger indication than gender.

Sugar and spice and all things nice; rats and snails and puppy dogs’ tails

Boys are more badly behaved, with 80% of children permanently excluded from school being male. Exclusion rates across ethnic groups vary insubstantially, but socio-economic background does have an impact, with pupils who receive free school meals three times more likely to be excluded from school. All the same, the increased disruption to their educations that boys experience when compared to girls must, somewhere, be reflected in their poorer performance.

Blue stockings and the old school tie

Single-sex education is an ideal that divides parents and those involved in education quite vehemently: you seem to be either a staunch supporter or a rabid opposer. I’m oddly ambivalent towards it, and in terms of gender achievement, there is no conclusive evidence of benefit or detriment in either direction. What can be said for single-sex education is that it dismantles the gender stereotypes that are often applied to subjects. Young people attending single-sex schools are less likely to conform to gender stereotypical subject choices.

In crowds and loners

Girls react better to the structure and ethos of the school environment. They are more motivated and more co-operative, so they are more attuned to achieve. There seems to be an inherent struggle between boys and structured learning environments. Then we add to that the significant boy culture dictating that school is not cool, and neither is reading. If they want to be in with the in crowd, they’re on a headlong collision course with achievement.

Could do better?

Is there a solution? In short, no. That is unless we want to actively inhibit girls’ learning, and I think you might find some fairly strong opposition to that suggestion. Whatever we do to raise the attainment of boys — be it through boy-friendly pedagogies or teaching methods — it is just as likely to appeal to and therefore benefit girls, so it wouldn’t close the gap.

We’ve given girls an educational place to stand: are they about to move the world?


  • Burgess, McConnel, Propper, Wilson: Girls rock, boys roll: An analysis of the age 14-16 gender gap in English schools, Bristol, 2004.
  • Department for Education and Skills: Gender and education: the evidence on pupils in England, 2007.
  • Ofsted: Gender Equality Scheme, forthcoming.
  • Younger and Warrington: Raising boys' achievement, Cambridge, 2004.

Before the issue of the gender gap can be addressed, the issue of the methodology of surveying student achievement and ability must be addressed. I am surprised that the validity and methodology of the above data are not discussed at length above. The criteria for female performance over male is based on "the achievement of five A*-C grade GCSEs." I am not particularly versed on the British secondary school system, but I do know that in the United States of America, standardized tests are often treated with attitudes running from skepticism to scorn. And, this isn't just the attitude of a few people worried about the social biases of the SAT or a few malcontents worried that its turning us into robots that only know how to fill in circles. As a graduate student in education, I can say that to hear an instructor or student in education advocating that standardized testing or exams are the best way, or even a good way, to gauge student learning; would be about the equivalent of hearing a creationist in a university biology setting. Not to say that certain aspects of standardized testing can't be helpful, but they are far from a complete picture. Strangely enough, though, and not to engage in cultural foiling, I have noticed that Europeans seem to be much more confident in the objective ability of their school systems to sort students---with the added irony that the largest initiative of cowboy individualist George W Bush in education is the attempted Europeanization of the US Educational system.

That prologue, much of which should be unnecessary, out of the way, I want to talk about testing for reading and writing. Some subjects are easy to test in a standardized fashion, while others are not. Reading and writing are both subjects that are hard to test for, either in terms of coursework or in a standardized test. The problem with reading and writing is that they are very process based. The point of reading is not to "pick out the meaning" from a text, but rather to pick out a possible meaning, and refine that meaning through discussion. Even in a simple children's book, there are a variety of interpretations that could be made. For that reason, it is teacher interaction with the student that often gives the important subjective impression of how a student is learning. The problem with this subjective evaluation is that it leads the teacher very open to bias. The writeup above mentions that social class plays a big difference in grades. In coursework, it would seem almost a given that even a well intentioned teacher may inadvertently think the ideas and expression of a lower-class student were less involved than they were. Although I don't know how current conditions are, I would think this factor would be increased by England's rather infamous classism.

Another large problem with reading and writing is that they are subjects where there is often no "right answer". To use a perhaps cliched example, if a student was asked to "pick the meaning" out of Hamlet, what type of answers would the judge of their essay look for? One of the answers to this is that the student is being judged on how they arrived at their ideas, and how the presented them, not on the ideas themselves. But beyond basic grammar and structure, it is hard to judge writing because sometimes what seems at first to be bad writing is just a writer finding (and working on-more process again) their own voice (and to be fair, often writers "finding their own voice" are often just bad).

For all of these reasons (and more), I find the very notion of standardized tests and exams, especially in the language arts, to be fairly low in validity or relevance.

But what does this have to do with gender, specifically? A hint to this might be found in this report, which I found when looking for the still-unreleased report from ofsted:
A number of them come from homes where academic work and formal achievement have little value, and where boys gain in self-esteem by challenging, rather than conforming to authority.
I was a little surprised at this. To me, if the boys are challenging, and not conforming to authority, they would seem to be using their intellect more. Not that I don't realize that there is a difference between channeled critical thought, and destructive rebellion, but it could be that the boys, even at a young age, realize that a classist system will have limited rewards for them, and are therefore putting their energy elsewhere: sports, music or other hobbies that provide non-formal achievement. Indeed, the same report says that:
Questionnaires to families suggested that male family members were less committed to school literacy than females, even though some men enjoyed home-based reading.
The fact that boys are more likely to find reading that deals with their own interests, rather than simply reading to conform to the school curriculum, means to me that they may be internalizing literacy more.

One of the biggest problems with tests of reading and writing, and where this might tie in with class and social issues, is the fact that certain types of writing are more valuable in employment, especially in a corporate setting. The tests and exams may be looking for this specific type of writing, which focuses on clear presentation of ideas and good group dynamics. Most writers would agree that these are important things, but writing can also be valuable when it is idiosyncratic and abrasive. It could be that that boys and men, especially if they have a rebellious attitude, are more likely to engage in writing that is more direct, less subtle, and more full of individualistic opinions that may not be the popular fashion amongst test judgers or employers. But that hardly makes it bad writing! For example, while it might be abrasive on my part to point out that the above write-up seems to lack critical thinking about methodology and social biases, it is also an important point.

So to me, their are two things to actually look for in learning, two ways to tell whether the gender gap is actually there, or is just an artefact of school culture:

  • Are young men, after school, able to function in the workplace? Are they able to use their academic skills to navigate through other aspects of life, such as planning a budget and taking care of a household? And, for those of us who think there is more to life than a job and a home, are they able to apply their skills to social change, as they see fit?
  • Are young men, after school, able to use what they have learned to understand and appreciate the world around them? Will they be able to think critically about politics and society? Will they be able to use their academic knowledge to pick up a hobby, or study on their own? Will their academic background, perhaps, even give them a better spiritual appreciation of the world?
These are both fairly nebulous questions, and very hard to test for. But they are, in my mind, what is important. Until we have established that men are actually suffering educationally in comparison to women at these two big jobs, I consider the "educational gender gap" to be in many ways just a false result of an outmoded, testing-oriented educational system.

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