As of recently, girls in the United Kingdom have begun to achieve better results than boys in their GSCES and A-Levels. The gender gap in GSCE and A-Level results in the UK is at its widest in over a decade. In 2021 particularly, girls achieved better grades in both the subjects they favour, and in the ones that boys prefer! This blog tries to make sense of the trend. I’ll examine the statistics, and look at why the gender gap for GSCE and A-Level results is widening with each passing year. Ultimately, I’ll also question whether or not this gap should really be a cause for worry for both girls and boys alike.
The subject preferences for boys and girls at GSCE and A-Level seem to be changing
Historically (or perhaps stereotypically), boys have often opted for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects. Girls have leant towards more humanity-based subjects, such as English and Sociology. Potential female biologists or mathematicians have been let down by old-fashioned gender presumptions and a lack of role models and covert ways leadership opportunities for them are minimised. Girls have been told they can’t do things that boys can, and this has a profound and loud effect on those listening.
However, this distinction has started to become less defined. Finally, girls are being more readily encouraged to choose STEM subjects, and the exam results in these departments are shifting accordingly.
The 2021 A-Level Maths results were especially ground-breaking. 56.8% of girls achieved at least an A, whilst 28.4% of girls received an A*. For the first time ever, the girls beat the boys on both fronts. At long last, the idea that boys are more suited to subjects like maths is being properly questioned in the UK.
The gender gap in A-Level results has reached its widest in a decade
In the 2021 results, the rate of A* and A grades for female A-Level students was 46.4%, compared to 41.7% for boys. In only three subjects (German, Spanish, Performing Arts) did the boys achieve better results. Similarly, the rate of 7/A grades at the GSCE level was almost 10% higher for girls. The large gap seems to indicate something real, rather than natural variation.
In subjects favoured by girls, they far out-perform their male counterparts. Subjects like English and Psychology have long been dominated academically by girls. It’s no surprise they continued this trend. What’s more shocking is that girls now achieve better results in the subjects more popular with boys, such as STEM subjects, PE and economics. When girls are given equal opportunity and empowered in various ways to pursue the subjects they want, they consistently outshine the boys.
So, why might girls be performing better in their GSCE and A-Level results?
There’s no concrete reason for the discrepancy but many good hypotheses. Some argue that girls are more suited to a school environment or it may even be possible that girls are more intelligent. But grades don’t always correlate to intelligence. Girls might just be performing better under the pressure of exams, with more dedicated and disciplined revision. Some studies have shown that girls have more self-discipline and take school more seriously on average than boys – perhaps girls are realising that economic independence is correlated to a better and more empowered living and they are pursuing it hard, unlike any other generation historically.
A 2012 Department for Education study found that boys in UK schools performed more negative social or behavioural actions than girls and far fewer positive ones. Basically – boys are worse at interacting with each other at school. As a result, they often find themselves in a more difficult environment to learn. We need to question how we have conditioned boys culturally and emotionally and see their behaviour as a symptom to be caringly addressed.
There might also be a more direct reason for the most recent exam results. Many students at GSCE and A-Level haven’t had to take the actual exam in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, meaning that the results were skewed. The results were more coursework-centric, and teachers had more control over the grade. Research has suggested that final exams themselves generally favour male students, so the recent dramatic upturn in favour of girls is understandable. This is a good consideration to hold but we will see how the gendered performance difference holds up in the next academic year when exams do return.
Should the gender gap in GSCE and A-Level results be a concern for students and parents?
Yes and no. The UK has so many systems in place which ultimately benefit men. Subconsciously or otherwise, men are favoured historically in positions of work and leadership unfortunately – at all levels. The statistics to show this are plenty. To put it into perspective, only 6% of the CEOs in the UK FTSE 100 were women in 2021, a number that hasn’t risen since 2017.
The recent academic achievements of girls in their GSCE and A-Level results is a massive positive. More girls will go to top universities, enter previously male-dominated fields given their high results, and challenge the status-quo into being more female leadership friendly. This needs to be celebrated, for more great change to happen.
The other important change that needs to take place is that we comprehensively address why boys may be left behind in the education system. Perhaps we need to better understand and address boys’ (lack of) motivation, incentive, discipline and focus, academic skills and more. What positive actions and support can we provide as parents, teachers, private tutors, and mentors to ensure that boys are also levelling the good results and ensuring a brilliant future.
After all, girls must ultimately live with boys in any society and empowering both genders to reach their very best potential is beneficial to all of us, in the present and the future.
Written by Dan Greene
Editorial by Tania Khojasteh
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