Boys and girls achievement: what’s really happening?
Group Director, Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment
This chapter is designed to dispel some contemporary myths regarding the relative performance
of boys and girls in schooling 5-19. It reproduces the key findings from a presentation to DfES
staff and leading educationalists, given by the author and Sylvia Green, both of Cambridge
There is a profound need to dispel simplistic representation of gendered achievement in
education and training, and in particular, myths around ‘boys underachievement’. Without
evidence-driven understanding, there is a grave risk of misunderstanding the real standing of
males and females in society as a whole, and of formulating highly defective public policy.
Nowhere is this risk more great than in the realm of ‘boy friendly learning’.
Media attention on ‘underperforming boys’ has paid little attention to important subtleties in the
nature of the problem, and in the findings from research. In his influential 2001 pamphlet, John
Marks failed to highlight that both boys and girls have improved, but boys have improved less
(rather than boys’ performance getting worse in absolute terms) (Marks J, 2001). It’s not all boys
at all levels/ages who are underperforming. There is a complex mix of developmental,
educational and social phenomena behind the differences in boys’ and girls’ relative performance.
There are no simple explanations for the gender gap; many factors have an influence: learning
preferences deriving from developmental distinctions between boys and girls, pupil grouping in
schools, assessment techniques, the curriculum, teaching styles, teacher expectations, role
models, and the way teachers reward and discipline. Ofsted have evidence of gendered
behaviour by teachers – including setting, attention-management, subject choice advice, and
decisions about entry to tiered papers….and more…(Ofsted 2003). Not least amongst these
factors is gender-stereotypical peer group pressure amongst boys which reinforces low levels of
engagement with learning (Warrington M, Younger M. 2005).
Dispelling myths 1: it’s a new problem.
The ‘gender gap’ is not a new problem; if raw scores in the 11+ had been used to determine
selection, then grammar schools in the 50s and 60s would have been populated almost
exclusively by girls. Likewise, the historical figures for O level achievement in the 1960s and 70s
show a gap in gender achievement, roughly 5% difference in pass rate, 10% in some subjects (eg
languages) (Murphy R. 1980).
Dispelling myths 2: it’s all about education
Actually it’s all about development, including pre-natal development. It all starts much earlier than
people think. Babies are actively processing speech
birth; they can recognise a story that
they have heard while still in the womb. (DeCasper, A. J. and Spence, M. J. 1986). Early
experiences affect cognitive development in a profound way;