The obvious answer is that we don’t know. As far as we can tell from statutory and secondary data, girls have always done slightly better than boys at school. If you go back to the Grammar school era, the proportion of girls passing the 11+ was always higher, but boys’ and girls’ results were held separately, else the Grammar schools would have been swamped by girls.
So, if you look at the data from the mid-70s, girls had always done slightly better, but then in the mid to late 80s there was a sudden jump. Girls were suddenly doing much better, and they’ve maintained that advantage ever since. That advantage continues into higher education.
So whatever we look at has to explain that jump, because that’s the crucial element. It was a one-off leap, and quite abrupt.
"The gender gap in maths is smaller than in English, Geography and History, but that’s slightly to do with the type of assessment. The more essay-writing there is, then the more girls do better."
Most obviously, GCSEs were introduced at that time, which saw a shift from normative referencing to criterion referencing. What used to happen was that the standards of exams were maintained by an assumption that the ability and talent of the pool of children taking exams remained constant – but you couldn’t guarantee that the standard of the exam stayed the same from year to year, which meant pass marks would differ, and the marks required to get an A might differ wildly from year to year.
GCSEs marked a move to a system where if you met the criteria for a particular grade, then you passed. From that point onwards, there’s been an annual increase in passes. At the same time, there was a move from multiple choice and terminal exams, to increased consideration of coursework.
It’s clear that if you give different groups different types of tests, then you get different gender gaps. The gender gap in maths, for instance, is much smaller than in English, Geography and History, but that’s slightly to do with the type of assessment.
The more essay-writing there is, then the more girls do better. Boys tend to do better in exams, particularly if they’re multiple choice or tick box-based, but girls do better in coursework. This may be because girls tend to be neater and more punctilious in preparing work, at least at that age, but again we really don’t know what the real reasons are.
But that gap that appeared from the late 80s onwards was when the exam system went through those fundamental changes. So if you wanted to change that gap, you could probably do that by changing the assessment again. If there was such a large difference in results with different ethnic groups, then we’d recalibrate the system – but no one’s actually doing that here. We’re just living with it, or attributing it to something else that couldn’t possibly have caused it. In the 90s, for instance, people used to suggest that an increased culture of laddishness or loss of jobs for males had lowered academic achievement for boys.
You could argue that it’s currently a mechanism to cause greater equality for women in the workplace – almost an accidental positive discrimination, no matter how intrinsically unfair that may be.
But another important thing to consider is where that gender gap is largest. If you look at those with the lowest level of attainment, then the gender gap is at its smallest, and in many cases there’s no gender gap at all. It’s at the highest levels of attainment that girls are doing better, and it’s particularly obvious at A* level. So it’s not quite the tragedy of failing boys that’s sometimes put forward. We’re not looking at a generation of disenfranchised boys burning cars in streets.