Gender and Educational Achievement

Gender and Educational Achievement: Part 1 of 5

Part One: Introduction.

Part Two Explaining Female Relative Educational Under-Achievement in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s - Click Here

Part Three Explaining the Relative Improvement in Female Educational Achievement from the 1980s onwards - Click Here

Part Four: Explaining the slower rate of improvement of male educational achievement Click Here

Part Five Appendix: Moral Panics and the Underclass - Click Here

Part One Introduction

Useful Links

More Females are nowadays on average more successful at all levels of the education system but not all females are educationally successful and not all females share similar futures. The same conclusions apply to males.

  • In Key Stage 1 tests girls outperform boys in Reading and Writing by 8%-13% but gender differences in Mathematics results are small and whereas in 2019 girls narrowly outperformed boys in Mathematics, the reverse was the case in 2022. Click here for relevant statistics. In Key Stage 2 tests in 2022 a larger percentage of girls than of boys reached the expected standard in all subjects combined. However as of April 2023 results in all individual subjects were not yet available. There were no Key Stage 2 tests in 2020 and 2021 but in 2019 a larger percentage of girls than of boys reached the expected standard in all subjects combined although the girls outperformed the boys in Mathematics by only 1%. At the higher standard girls again outperformed boys in all subjects combined but boys outperformed girls by 5% in Mathematics. Students may use this data to assess whether and to what extent gender differences in educational achievement are apparent at an early age. Click here for BBC item on gender and pre-school educational levels. Click here for Key Stage 2 results data in
  • Click here for Gender Differences in Achievement at Key Stage 4 2018/19- 2021/22.
  • In recent years until 2020 annual overall pass rates and grade distributions at both GCSE Level and GCE Advanced Level have been relatively stable because the overall pass rates and grade boundaries have been manipulated in order to achieve comparable outcomes: that is to try to ensure that “if the cohort of students taking a qualification in any one year is of similar” ability to their predecessors then, overall, results should be comparable.” This procedure has been adopted to remove the possibility of pass rate and grade inflation. Due to COVID and the cancellation of examinations in 2020 and 2021 these procedures were not adopted and as a result higher level GCE Advanced Level and GCSE grades both increased substantially. {You may click here for an explanation of comparable outcomes from Schools Week 2015 and click here for a detailed OFQUAL publication from 2020 and here Schools Week coverage for an interesting dispute as to when Comparable Outcomes were first introduced]  You may also click here and scroll down a little to see the extent of grade inflation since the 1960s.]  The circumstances surrounding the GCSE and GCE Advanced Level examinations in 2019 -2022 are considered here

There can be absolutely no doubt that historically females have faced serious obstacles both in society generally and within the education system which prevented most of them from achieving the educational levels of which they were clearly capable. Even when the Tripartite System of Secondary Education was introduced in 1945   the 11+ Examination was organised in such a way that the pass mark was set higher for females than males to counteract the possibility that females would achieve a disproportionate share of Grammar School places. Click here for an article by Harvey Goldstein confirming this point.] However educational prospects for females did gradually improve in the latter half of the 20th Century.

By the early 1960s boys were still more likely than girls to enter for GCE "O level" examinations but the percentages of male and female entrants passing these examinations were fairly similar although there were significant gender differences in subject choices which restricted females' career choices. Also, many girls who had passed these examinations and shown the capacities for Advanced Level courses did not continue their studies at Advanced Level so that despite relative gender equality of educational achievement at 16+ level, a greater proportion of males than females remained in full time education post 16 and entered for Advanced Level examinations where gender differences in subject choice remained substantial. Also, at this time male students were more successful than female students in the Advanced Level examinations so that male students were therefore more likely than females to enrol on Undergraduate courses.

Following the introduction of the GCSE in 1988 the GCSE examination results of female students improved more than those of male students so that the performance gap between female and male students at GCSE level increased. This overall relative improvement in female examination results at 16+ level occurred primarily because female students extended their traditionally superior performance in Languages and Humanities but also reversed males' traditionally superior examination performances in Mathematics and the Sciences although the gender differences in examination results in these latter subjects remained relatively small.

 For several years an overall gender gap of approximately 10% in the proportions of females and males gaining 5 or more A*/A-C grades at GCSE Level persisted. In recent years there have been changes to the GCSE grading system and different criteria for the measurement of attainment have been adopted but gender differences in educational attainment at GCSE have persisted.  Click here for  BBC Coverage of Gender Gap at GCSE Level 1989-2019 and here for BBC coverage of more recent trends.]

Also gender differences in subject choice at GCSE level declined especially after the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 which made Science subjects compulsory at GCSE Level.

Increasingly also more females enrolled on Advanced Level courses, and they began by the 1990s to outperform males in the Advanced Level examinations. The female GCE Advanced Level A*-E and A*-C pass rates consistently exceed the male A*-E and A*-C pass rates rate although relative Female and Male attainments at A*/A level fluctuated as will be indicated later. Nevertheless, females were more likely than males to enrol oh Higher Education courses but there were significant differences in subject choice at both Advanced and Undergraduate Levels substantial with females relatively more likely to enrol on Arts and Humanities courses and males more likely to enrol on Maths, Science and Engineering.

In 2013/14 females were very slightly less likely than males to be awarded First Class degrees but significantly more likely than males to be awarded Upper Second Class degrees. However, since 2016/17 females have been more likely than males to gain both First Class and Upper Second Class degrees the reverse was the case

In this document I shall also consider interrelationships between gender, ethnicity, and free school meal eligibility. Free School meal eligibility is often used as a not entirely satisfactory measure of working class membership.

Clearly the analysis of examination statistics involves considerable technicalities, and you should discuss with your teachers how best to approach these issues for examination purposes

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