Why boys trail further behind girls at GCSE top grades

Pupils at a Nottingham school Both boys and girls achieved record results this year

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Girls have opened up the biggest achievement gap over their male classmates in the top grades at GCSE since the A* was introduced.

Some 19.8% of boys entries were awarded an A* or an A this year compared with 26.5% of girls entries - a gap of 6.7 percentage points.

But education experts are warning against reading too much into the figures.

The achievement gap between boys and girls A* to C grades has also widened on last year but narrowed in last week's A-level results.

Head teachers' leader Brian Lightman says: "Over time the girls improve and the boys improve, and the girls improve a bit more quickly, but it's not a question that anyone is failing."

But the Association of School and College Leaders head adds that girls at GCSE age are more mature and more able to see the longer-term consequences of hard work than boys, who respond better to having short-term goals.

Ian Toone, senior professional officer with the Voice teaching union, points out that this year sees the first set of results of the new-style GCSEs, which are broken down into separate units.

Start Quote

GCSEs require a degree of solo work and are not viewed as 'cool' in a laddish culture”

End Quote Ian Toone Voice professional officer

"Although this could help boys, as it means that they can cram for exams in short bursts, in practice it means that pupils need to perform consistently well throughout the whole two years of a GCSE course, and this kind of assiduous diligence is something at which girls tend to excel far more than boys."

He adds that GCSEs are achievement tests rather than measures of innate intelligence and thus favour pupils who apply themselves "in a dedicated and industrious manner".

"This is a trait which is more typical of girls than boys - who are more easily distracted and prefer to focus on one thing at a time," he claims.

But he acknowledges that there are other societal factors at play from early childhood.

"Boys are encouraged to be more active from an early age, whereas the restless movements of baby girls are pacified.

"Hence, girls develop the skill of sitting still for longer periods of time, which is useful for academic pursuits like studying for GCSEs."

'Peer pressure'

This is often evident right from when children start school, with girls tending to be more ready to sit down and concentrate on reading or writing than some boys.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb believes ensuring boys can read well in the early years is the answer.

"The gap often begins in primary schools, with poor reading skills a barrier. We need to intervene early on to make sure that boys can read well, and all the evidence from around the world shows that the systematic teaching of synthetic phonics is the best way to teach basic literacy skills," he says.

But Mr Toone adds: "Boys tend to cluster together in larger groups than girls and so are more likely to be influenced by peer pressure and to develop a gang mentality, which can militate against GCSE success.

"GCSEs require a degree of solo work and are not viewed as 'cool' in a laddish culture."

The former head of education at the National Union of Teachers, John Bangs, acknowledges that in most schools there are likely to be groups of boys who act out in an attention-seeking way.

"If there is a group of boys in a school who are completely off the wall, they have to be targeted for intervention.

"I remember going to a school in Greenwich where they were providing clubs during the lunch time specifically for boys and also specifically for girls. The really good schools are already doing this."

Brian Lynch, assistant head teacher of Bethnal Green Technology College in east London, says his school has introduced intervention strategies that have been really effective in improving the results of both boys and girls.

This year boys increased their A* to Cs grades from 50% to 77% at the school. For girls the rise was from 79% to 82%.

Interventions include traditional methods such as close monitoring and streaming students in ability groups, but also encouraging thinking and leadership skills while working with community groups.

"It's really striving to develop their skills as leaders and giving them opportunities to express themselves," he says.

Mr Lightman says both girls and boys can respond very well to moves that make them feel a real sense of belonging and ownership in a school.

"It's about them being able to shape their own learning."

However, he warns: "Boys can be more susceptible to becoming demoralised by all the difficulties out there at the moment such as the socio-economic circumstances and all the difficulties about getting into university.

"They seem to be less resilient than perhaps some girls who can look to the long term."

Mr Bangs argues that gender gap will not close in our schools without resources continuing to be being targeted at the biggest underachieving groups - white working class boys and African-Caribbean boys.

He adds: "Schools should be looking at what they're teaching children to ensure that they engage boys as much as girls."

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