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Exams - are they better suited to girls or boys?

Claire Winter Claire Winter | 16:36 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010

For the last two decades, girls have beaten the boys to the top grades at GCSE and out-performed them at A Level, achieving 8.3% of their A Levels at A* grade (compared to 7.9% for boys). This, you could argue, is overwhelming evidence that girls perform better than boys in exams.

But last year, for the first time in 12 years, boys did better in Maths than girls. This was because of the decision to drop coursework entirely from Maths GCSE. Girls stayed at 56.8%, whilst the number of boys getting a grade A to C rose from 55.8% to 57.6%. 

Coursework that had traditionally been done at home, was replaced with ‘controlled assessment’ – coursework completed in exam conditions.

exam day @ Laurence Gough - fotolia

The recent white paper on education also heralds a big change to they way GCSEs and A Levels will be examined. They are going back to a more rigid, exam-based system. They will be less modular, with fewer re-sits allowed and this, educationalists argue, will definitely help the boys.

An article in the Independent, cites a 2009 report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) that compared GCSEs with the previous qualification, the O-level, which relied on exam assessment, and pinpointed coursework as a major factor behind boys' lower average grades at GCSE. At O-level, meanwhile, it was girls who traditionally fared worse.

"There is evidence that the introduction of GCSEs, contributed to the deterioration in the relative participation of boys," the report concluded. "There are strong indications that the nature of the GCSE assessment (and the nature of the teaching and curriculum that feed it) is part of the reason for the relatively poor performance of boys." As a result, for 20 years, boys may have been "needlessly achieving less than they might".

Perhaps, a more sensible approach is two have different exams for boys and girls? In the summer, it was reported that an exam board was looking in to creating a science GCSE with coursework in it for girls - one which gave more weighting to exam marks for boys. Some teaching unions have criticised it as gender stereotyping, but as neither girls nor boys will be forced to take a particular type of exam, isn’t it just adjusting the system to suit different pupils learning needs? 

Whilst I am all for more vigorous examinations and a stronger emphasis on grammar and spelling in exams, all things suggested in the White Paper, I also wonder if there is too much emphasis on exams?

As I pointed out in an earlier blog, girls may do better than boys in school, but they still end up being paid less in the workplace. The number of women in highly paid, managerial jobs, and positions of power is also very small. For example, female doctors are still paid 18% less than their male counterparts

So, until the gender inequality in our society is sorted out, does it really matter that females are benefiting from a system that is more suited to them than males?

Claire Winter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

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