A-level reforms may have helped boys achieve better results

Sally Weale Education correspondent
Madeline Ashman, Thomas Wroy and William Sharp after getting A-level results at Peter Symonds College in Winchester, Hampshire. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

The latest A-level results suggest the tide could be starting to turn on the relative performance of boys and girls.

After years of girls outperforming their male counterparts, Thursday’s results indicate boys are starting to close the gap.

One factor, it has been suggested, could be the reintroduction of end-of-year exams as part of the A-level reforms this year. The exams are perceived as favourable to boys by some educationalists, who have argued they are less likely to work consistently throughout the year and prefer to throw all their preparations into a final, decisive exam as opposed to continuous assessment.

Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) at the University of Buckingham, said when modular qualifications were introduced in 2002, girls’ performances began to climb - a trend which has continued.

The differences between the sexes’ A-level results, which are very small, could also be explained by other factors such as ability and prior attainment.

This year boys across the UK and in all subjects outperformed girls in achieving the top grades, gaining 26.6% A and A*, compared with 26.1% for girls. Last year 25.7% of boys were awarded A and A*s – 0.3 points below girls.

In England, boys coped better with the introduction of new, linear A-levels. While 24.3% of both genders were awarded either A or A*, the figures actually represent a significant decline for girls. The proportion of girls gaining A and above fell by 1.1 percentage points compared to 2016, while the boys’ results held up far better, falling just 0.2 percentage points.

Exam boards are urging caution in drawing early conclusions about the impact of the reformed exams on gender performance. In Wales, there has also been a marked improvement in boys’ performance this year, yet their A-levels remain modular rather than linear.

“There are some potentially interesting gender patterns, but it’s too early to draw any firm conclusions,” Mark Bedlow, the director of regulation at the OCR exam board, said.

“In reformed subjects females are performing as well, if not better than males, though there is a narrowing of the gap in results between males and females at those high grades.

“It will be interesting to see as we progress through the reforms whether this pattern becomes a trend and whether the gender gap at A-level closes.”

Looking in more detail at how boys and girls performed in 2016 compared with this year, boys raised their A and A* grades in art and design, which went up 2.1 percentage points from 22.2 to 24.3. In business, top grades among males went up 1.5 percentage points from 12.8 to 14.3; in economics they went up 1.2 percentage points from 28.6 to 29.8, and in history they were up 1.1 percentage points from 20.5 to 21.6.

Correspondingly, there were subjects where girls did worse than last year. In physics, the number of girls achieving A and A* grades was down 1.9 percentage points from 32.5 to 30.6; chemistry went down 1.1 percentage points from 31.1 to 30, and biology went down 1.1 percentage points from 27.5 to 26.4. There is some speculation that the increased mathematical content in some of the new science exams might explain the changes in results.

However, Smithers insisted: “Boys have done better this year, mainly because there has been a switch to exams at the end of the courses in England in 13 of the major subjects.

“When A-levels changed to continuous assessment in 2002 the girls leapt ahead, but now we are reverting to exams boys have overtaken them again at A*-A. In Northern Ireland where the exams have stayed the same, girls have gone even further ahead.”

Other experts were more reluctant to draw immediate conclusions. Philip Nye, of the research group Education Datalab, said: “It’s very hard to say at this stage whether boys have benefited from the move to reformed A-levels, with less coursework and a linear structure.

“Their performance in these subjects has improved relative to girls’ this year, but this might have been as much to do with the academic ability of the boys and girls who chose these subjects this year as it is the changes to A-level structure.”

Kevin Stannard, of the Girls’ Day School Trust, said: “There are lots of other factors that could explain it, including gender differences in uptake of subjects. Linearity in itself does not give advantages to either boys or girls. It’s how schools deal with it.”

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