A-level grades gender gap is halved after return of exams

·4-min read
Twins Martha and Reuben Meadows hold up signs saying 'I'm off to Cambridge!' and 'I'm off to Oxford!' - York Press/SWNS
Twins Martha and Reuben Meadows hold up signs saying 'I'm off to Cambridge!' and 'I'm off to Oxford!' - York Press/SWNS

The gender gap between boys and girls at A-level has narrowed with the return of full public examinations following their cancellation during the pandemic.

In 2021 A-levels and GCSEs were awarded through teacher-assessed grades based on evidence of pupils’ standard of work earlier in the year, which was thought to benefit girls more than boys, who can underperform in class but reveal their full potential in exams.

The gap between girls and boys when it came to the top grades of A or A* was 2.2 percentage points in 2022, compared with 4.8 percentage points the previous year.

Girls achieved 37.4 per cent A or A*, versus 35.2 per cent for boys.

However, Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said that the “effect on the gender gap is perhaps not as great as we’ve expected” because students were given advance notice of topics appearing on papers, which allowed them to prepare more diligently.

“There was a big swing in favour of girls in teacher assessment and there has been some swing back, but it’s not moved very far,” he added.

He said that this made the exams in 2022 more like coursework and that teacher-assessed grades had been “decidedly in favour of girls”.

In 2020, girls overtook boys at the top A* grade for the first time when schools awarded centre-assessed grades.

Prof Smithers added that while boys could overtake girls again at the top grades next year, this was not inevitable as there was some “stickiness” with the trends in grading.

He said that it was increasingly obvious at universities – where, for a long time, girls were in a minority and achieved fewer first-class degrees – that they were “fast catching up at that level as well, so it seems to me that the education system brings the best out of girls but it isn’t developing the boys and young men”.

Donna Stevens, of the Girls’ Schools Association, a body of independent single-sex schools, said she was “particularly thrilled to see girls thriving and to see boys catching up”.

“We welcome success in every child and celebrate every pupil and wish them all the very best in their future endeavours,” she added.

Girls performed best in health and social care, physical education, geography and psychology, whereas boys achieved their greatest share of the top grades in German, chemistry, further mathematics and French.

Boys have also narrowed the gap in the highest grade, A*, with the proportion of girls getting this grade 0.4 percentage points higher than boys this year, compared with a 1.3 percentage point difference last year.

Boys also retook the lead over girls at the top grade for maths in 2022 after girls out-performed boys at the A* grade for the first time in 2021. Last year, 29.1 per cent of girls were awarded A*, compared with 28.5 per cent of boys.

In 2022, boys re-established the lead they had previously enjoyed since the A* grade was introduced in 2010, with 24.2 per cent of boys awarded an A* this year compared with 22.1 per cent of girls.

The change might have been affected by the drop in the number of girls taking the subject, down 5 per cent from 38,016 in 2021 to 36,083 in 2022.

Girls overtake boys studying politics

For the first time, the number of girls taking A-level political studies outnumbered boys.

A decade ago in 2012, 8,669 boys were entered for the subject compared with 6,591 girls.

This year, the figures stood at 10,305 girls and 10,191 boys.

Once again, computing was the A-level subject that recorded the biggest gender imbalance towards males, with boys making up 85 per cent of entries and girls 15 per cent – the same proportions as last year.

Physics (77 per cent boys, 23 per cent girls) and further maths (72 per cent boys, 28 per cent girls) were among the other subjects skewed heavily towards males.

The biggest imbalance towards females was in the relatively new subject of health and social care.

In the double award for this subject, girls made up 96 per cent of entries and boys just 4 per cent – again, the same percentages as last year.

Performing/expressive arts (91 per cent girls, 9 per cent boys) and Welsh as a first language (86 per cent girls, 14 per cent boys) were other examples of subjects with predominantly female entries.