opinion Results: a question of perceptions, not gender

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The Independent Online
Gender differences in examinations and assessment continue to be the focus of much debate. Research evidence, as highlighted again by the recent Ofsted/Equal Opportunities Commission report, shows that at age 16 girls are ahead in a range of subjects and leave school better qualified than boys. At 18, however, it is a different story. Our investigation, which examined performance between GCSE and A-level, shows girls losing the edge over boys at 18. At A-level, not only do boys realise they have to do more work, they actually do better than their female counterparts.

In trying to understand this "crossover" in performance our research focused on three subjects: English literature, mathematics and physics, which demonstrated clearly the shift in outcomes between GCSE and A-level. Data was collected through nearly 3,000 examinations scripts, a survey of 200 departmental heads and nine case studies in schools throughout the country. Few significant gender differences were found on the examination papers. However, teachers and students provided extra clues as to why the patterns of performance change between these two phases of education.

Teachers described what may be termed "global characteristics" of male and female students. Boys were seen as relatively self-assured, anxiety- free and unperturbed by examinations, whereas girls were perceived to be more motivated and conscientious. In terms of students' ability in the subject, however, few gender differences were ascribed. What is suggested from this distinction between general characteristics of students and their course-specific ability is that the overall style of A-level may reward certain approaches and responses more than others. This may then advantage males more than females.

With the publication of A-level results today, it is perhaps timely to focus on what can be done by teachers, and students alike, to redress these perceived imbalances.

Teachers and pupils, and indeed examiners, need to be more aware of the relationship between teaching and assessment. If a particular style of response is valued at a particular level then it must be explicitly taught. Furthermore, if the style of response is very different between GCSE and A-level, then teachers need to support those students whose preferred style is being challenged. Explicit recognition amongst teachers and students of these factors would encourage both males and females to be more positive about their own abilities.

Our evidence also suggests that teachers' perceptions of differential ability may be subtly conveyed to girls through advice given on the suitability of opting for particular subjects. Fewer girls do science at A-level. Science may be being portrayed as difficult and some girls may be being put off doing them. There does not appear to be corresponding negative perceptions conveyed to boys in opting for A-level English literature.

Time-tabling constraints also may actually deny any real choice and reinforce traditional patterns of entry for male and female students. Teachers should focus on A-level option arrangements and advice-giving policies in order to identify any relationship between flexibility of choice and subject combinations, differential entry patterns and performance.

Many subjects at A-level (especially the sciences) still retain a certain image which continues to put students off taking these subjects beyond GCSE. With the general concern about the decline in entry for science subjects, we need to review how these subjects are defined, taught and assessed at A-level. Teachers expressed a belief that by changing the image and the perceived difficulty of subjects and how subjects are related to the real world in which students live might encourage increased participation and success.

It is important for teachers to reconsider their own perceptions of what boys and girls are capable of. It was not untypical of teachers in our study to explain girls' achievement by diligence rather than ability:

"I hope she doesn't crack doing A-levels ... I suppose our expectations are that that particular girl over-performed [seven A grades at GCSE] because she worked hard. Because she is not brilliant, she's very, very good." Whereas words such as "flair", "sparkle", "unique" characterised descriptions of a good A-level performance from boys: "It's the boys who will come up with something absolutely unique, that I'd never thought of. They suddenly say 'what about this?' while the girls will listen to every single word, and do it exactly along those lines and they won't take risks. They'll produce a very competent, good piece of work, but it hasn't got that sparkle."

This shift in how achievement and success are defined between GCSE and A-level must also be made explicit to pupils. Boys and girls are equally able to understand the importance of different approaches and styles of communicating. To develop this understanding teachers need to give pupils the opportunity and support to examine the preferred styles required at different levels and what lies behind them.


Jannette Elwood is a lecturer in education at the Institute of Education, University of London. Chris Comber is a research associate at the School of Education, University of Leicester. The Gender Differences in Examinations at 18+ project was funded by the Nuffield Foundation.