The gap between the proportion of girls getting A*-C and boys is at its highest rate since 2003 despite boys getting a slightly higher share of A* grades.
The GCSE results today showed the female A*-C rate was 73.1% compared to 64.3% for males, a gap of 8.8 percentage points and a small increase on last year.
Looking back at the results since GCSEs were introduced in 1989,using data from the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER), it’s quite striking just how wide the gap has remained over that time.
While both boys’ and girls’ results have increased, the gap between the two genders has remained solid.
As the chart below shows the gap has just been getting bigger since it dropped to a 19-year-low of 6.9 percentage points in 2009.
The biggest gap in the last 25 years was in 2000 when the A*-C rate for girls was a full 9.2 percentage points ahead of the boys.
2014’s results show the gender gap is at its biggest in over a decade. It is worth noting that the overall A* rate for boys was 5.9% compared to 8.1% for girls, which means the 2.2 percentage point split has reduced by 0.1 on 2013’s results.
What we can say definitively is for the last couple of decades girls have vastly outperformed boys at GCSE level, so why is this the case?
Alan Smithers points out in CEER’s 2012 report that girls were ahead in O-levels, the predecessor to GCSE, but by quite a lot less.
The switch to GCSE came with much more of a reliance on coursework than end of year exams, which Smithers says “seems to have made the difference.”
Interestingly this year’s GCSEs saw a downgrading in the importance of coursework and the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) gave that asone of the reasons that the number of students taking Physics, Biology and Chemistry dropped for the first time in a decade.
What did that do to the gender gap in those subjects?
Well, not much changed really. Boys were already outperforming girls at Biology and Chemistry but the gap for Biology got 0.2 percentage points smaller while the gap for Chemistry got slightly bigger. Girls were doing better than boys at Physics and that gap got bigger by 0.1 percentage points.
Does this disprove the coursework theory? Not at all, because the drop in participants could have removed some of the less able students so the comparison may not be completely fair.
The historical data lends more weight to the hypothesis, especially when you look at maths. When the coursework element of the exam was dropped in 2009 boys started to do fractionally better than girls as the chart below shows.
This year girls more A* and As than boys across all the major subjects, all of them that is except for Maths where boys finished ahead.
Now contrast that to the gap between boys and girls’s pass rate in English in the chart below.
Smithers explains this as follows:
Having narrowed a little since 2000 it has widened again as English was one of the few subjects in 2009 to adopt 60 per cent controlled assessment (coursework under standard conditions). The huge gap seems to be due to the higher verbal abilities, on average, from an early age and a preference for course work and modular exams. The regulated lowering of GCSE grades in English in 2012 impacted more on boys.
This is not definitive but it does seem there are certain factors and modes of examination that either gender may fare better with.
Does that mean that O-level style end-of-year examinations are fairer because the historical gender gap is smaller? Not necessarily. However, the way the trends are looking the gap seems set to remain in place for a few years yet.