Richard Garner: Onward march of the boys will continue apace

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The Independent Online

The phrase is often trotted out at GCSE and A-level press conferences: “Two years is not a trend.”

Hence, a 0.2 percentage point drop in the percentage of pupils getting A* to C grades in English this year is not necessarily a catastrophe. Disappointing, the words of Schools Minister Vernon Coaker, is probably the best way to sum it up.

We must wait until next year to see if this is a more worrying trend.

There can, though, be exceptions to every rule and there is one to that catchphrase (invented by Dr Mike Cresswell, the director general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance) and there is a major one this year.

Maths results showed for the first time in twelve years that boys were outperforming girls – coinciding with the first cohort to take the exam since coursework was abolished. At A* to C grade, the boys were 0.8 percentage points ahead - compared to one percentage point behind last year.

Coursework was abolished because of fears that it was too easy to cheat – get parents’ help or submit information gleaned online. Traditionalists also thought the end-of-term exam was a better test of children’s knowledge.

Much research shows that girls do better than boys in coursework. Boys come into their own at the end in the end of year tests. It’s like performing in the Ashes rather than Bangladesh in cricket. Sorry girls!

There is less research to show why this should be although it is commonly accepted wisdom that girls are more diligent and will pay more attention to work demanded of them during the year whereas boys only really gear themselves up for exams.

Next year will see the amount of coursework in every GCSE subject reduced along the lines of what has happened in maths. It does not take a genius to work out that the onward march of the boys will continue apace.

As to what you do about it, that debate could last a long time. Is it better that knowledge should be assessed through coursework or end of year tests. Dr John Dunford, the respected general secretary of the Association for School and College Leaders, reckons there is room for using both methods of assessment. He would like to see a system of chartered assessors set up so every school has at least one teacher qualified to mark exams like GCSE. There could be spot checks to ensure there is no attempt to boost an individual school’s results.

With the GCSE losing its position as the final “rite of passage” for education as more and more youngsters stay on in education or training in some form, his plea becomes more attractive.

Whether that would lead to boys outperforming boys , girls outperforming boys or equality between the sexes is a matter for an education writer some years hence rather than for a snap judgement now.