Gender and Educational Achievement Some Data on Pass Rates in GCE Ordinary Level Examinations 1950s -1980s


Gender and Educational Achievement: Some Data on Pass Rates in GCE Ordinary Level Examinations 1950 -1980's

  1. Gender differences in examination pass rates at 16+ level were small from the 1950s to the 1980s. By the 1970s girls were slightly more likely than boys to gain 5 or more GCE Ordinary level passes because they were significantly more likely than boys to pass examinations in Arts and Humanities subjects and only slightly less likely than boys to pass GCE Ordinary Level Examinations in Mathematics and Scientific Subjects.

Gender and Educational Achievement at GCE Ordinary Level : from the 1950s to 1988

  1. In the 1950s and early 1960s most pupils were educated in Secondary Modern Schools and they [as well as a more limited number of Grammar School pupils] left school at the age of 15  without taking any official national examinations. Thus any official data on gender differences in 16+ examinations results in the 1950s and early 1960s related only to the relatively small percentages of pupils who remained in school until the age of 16 and took GCE Ordinary Level examinations. These will be referred to subsequently as GCE "O" Levels.
  2. By the 1960s some Secondary Modern schools provided GCE O Level courses for pupils who wished to stay on until the age of 16 and when the Certificate of Secondary Education was introduced in 1965 more secondary modern pupils stayed on to take this examination. Meanwhile the comprehensivisation process accelerated from the 1960s onwards and many comprehensive pupils now took either GCE O Levels or CSE examinations or a combination of the two.
  3. However the official school leaving age was not raised to 16 until 1973 and so in the 1960s many pupils still left school without taking any official national examinations.
  4. From the 1950s to the 1970s boys were more likely than girls to take GCE "O "Level Examinations. For example in broad terms in the 1960s and 1970s boys and girls took 55% and 45% respectively of all GCE "O" Level examinations..
  5. From the 1950s to the 1980s there were also significant gender differences in examination subject entries. Girls were more likely than boys to enter for English, Modern Languages, Humanities subjects and Domestic Science while boys were more likely than girls to enter for Mathematics, Science subjects other than Biology, Woodwork, Metalwork and Technical Drawing.
  6. From the 1950s to the 1970s the percentages of male and female school leavers achieving 5 or more GCE "O" Level passes were very similar. However since males  were more likely than females to enter for GCE "O" Level examinations this meant that the actual pass rate for female candidates must have exceeded the pass rate for male candidate s in several subjects.
  7. In fact the female candidate pass rate was higher [and in some cases significantly higher] than the  male candidate pass rate in English Language, History, French, RE and Art while the male candidate pass rate was usually higher in Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Biology although in these subjects gender differences in candidate pass rates were relatively small.
  8. By the early 1980s girls and boys were now equally likely to take GCE "O" Level Examinations and the percentages of both boys and girls taking these examinations increased gradually. Gender differences in percentages passing 5 or more GCE "O" Levels were small but nevertheless about 1%- 2% in girls' favour.
  9. However this single statistic hid the facts that girls were often significantly outperforming boys in Arts and Humanities subjects and that boys were slightly outperforming girls in Mathematics and Science subjects.
  • Overall Trends in GCE, CSE and GCSE Pass Rates are shown in the following Tables.

Table 1: Percentages of School Leavers of Any Age Achieving 5 or more A*-C Equivalent Pass Grades 1974/5 -1987/8.

[ The data in both of the following tables refer to pupils from all English schools but from 1974/5 to 1987/8 the data refer to school leavers are of any age while from 1987/8 onwards they refer to pupils aged 15 at the start of the academic year. Prior to 1988/9 pass rate data refer to GCE "O" levels [and CSE Grade 1 passes in 86/7 and 87/8] while from 1988/9 onwards they refer to GCSE passes A-C and A*-C after 1992/3 .]

Year Boys Girls Total
74/5 22.2 23.0 22.6
75/6 22.7 23.1 22.9
76/7 23.4 23.5 23,5
77/8 23.7 23.6 23.7
78/9 23.5 23.9 23.7
79/80 23.7 24.4 24.0
80/81 24.5 25.6 25.0
81/2 25.4 26.8 26.1
82/3 25.4 27.1 26.2
83/4 26.3 27.2 26.7
84/5 26.3 27.4 26.9
85/6 26,2 27.2 26.7
86/7 25.6 27,2 26.4
87/8 28.2 31.7 29.9


  • GCE, CSE and GCSE

CSE examinations were introduced in  1965 with the aim of providing formal educational qualifications for students who were not considered capable of reaching the GCE "O" Level standard. The hope was that the introduction of these examinations would encourage more students to work more seriously for the new examination qualifications and also help employers  to assess the relative suitability  of school leavers for different types of employment. CSE examinations were less demanding than GCE "O" level examinations  but a CSE Grade 1 pass grade was accorded parity  with a Grade C GCE "O" Level pass grade  and the above statistics for  1986/7 and 1987/8 included  candidates who had  gained some CSE Grade 1 pass grades.

Since CSE examinations certainly did not attain "parity of esteem" with GCE "O" Levels among pupils, teachers, parents and employers the decision was taken to merge the two examinations into the new GCSE examination . Whereas GCE "O" Level  grades had been awarded entirely on the basis of examination performance CSE assessments had included a coursework component and it was decided that GCSE assessments should be based partly on examination performance and partly upon course work which was to account for about 25% of the final assessment. It was argued also that it was necessary to recognise the achievements of all pupils at GCSE level whatever grades were achieved but in practice GCSE Grades A-C and subsequently A*-C came to be defined by many as "pass grades" and equated broadly with the previous GCE "O" level pass grades A-C.

Once the GCSE was introduced it was noted that GCSE pass rates at Grades A/A*-C were increasing more rapidly than had occurred in the era of GCE "O" level examinations  and this led to allegations  by some that these examinations must have become easier than the previous GCE O levels although others have argue that the higher pass rates reflected more effective teaching and learning by teachers and students respectively. [In any case as stated in the DCFS Paper entitled Gender and Education: The Evidence on Pupils in England," GCSEs, unlike O Levels are criterion based assessments rather than measured in relation to peer performance ending the rationing of the top grades." This fundamental change in the nature of the grade awarding process clearly helps to explain why increasing percentages of pupils have been able to gain A/A*-C GCSE pass grades.

The examination results of both boys and girls improved but  overall gender differences in examination results [as measured by percentages of boys and girls achieving 5 or more GCSE grades A/A*-C] increased quite sharply once the GCSE was introduced as girls maintained or even increased their traditionally superior performance in English, Modern Foreign Languages and Humanities subjects and narrowed or even occasionally reversed boys' traditionally slightly superior examination performance in Mathematics and Science subjects.

The overall extent and timing of improvements in relative female educational improvement at 16+ level are illustrated in the following table.

 Table 2: Percentages of pupils in all English schools aged 15 at the start of the academic year achieving 5 or more A*-C Equivalent Pass Grades 1985/6- 1999/2000

Year Boys Girls Total
85/6 [GCE O Levels only] 26.2 29.2 26.9
86/7{GCE O Levels and CSE Grade1] 26.3 27.2 26.4
87/8[GCE O Levels and CSE Grade 1] 28.2 31.7 29.9
88/9 [First GCSE Results] 29.8 35.8 32.8
89/90 30.8 38.4 34.5
90/1 33.3 40.3 36.8
91/2 34.1 42.7 38.3
92/3 36.8 45.8 41.2
93/4 [A* introduced] 39.1 47.8 43.3
94/5 39.0 48.1 43.5
95/6 39.9 49,4 44.5
96/7 40.5 50.0 45.1
97/8 41.3 51.5 46.3
98/9 42.8 52.4 47.9
99/2000 44.0 54.6 49.2


Some explained this relatively rapid improvement in girls' educational achievements once the GCSE had been introduced mainly in terms of girls' allegedly superior organisational skills which enabled them to complete the newly introduced coursework tasks more effectively. Others have suggested that the reality is much more complex : it could be argued, for example, that coursework assignments test especially depth of understanding as well as organisational skills and that in any case girls' relative educational improvement must be explained by a wide ranging combination of factors operative inside and outside of the schools rather than solely by changes to the system of assessment at GCSE level. Furthermore the fact that relative improvements in female educational achievements are occurring in many countries suggests that they cannot be explained in the UK solely by the introduction of the GCSE.

There has been a significant gender gap in educational achievement at GCSE level throughout the 1990s and into the 21st Century. These more recent trends are illustrated and analysed in other pages on Gender and Education.