Study reveals why girls lose out at A-level

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A-LEVEL courses should be modified to make them more accessible to girls, according to a report to be published this week. The high performance of girls at GCSE may be overturned two years later because A-Level syllabuses are too rigid, it says.

The interim findings of an important study being carried out at London University's Institute of Education are bound to be looked at closely by examinations officials. They follow a fierce debate in recent weeks about whether girls do better in single-sex educational environments or not.

Last night an official at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) confirmed that the issue would be examined as part of an inquiry into examination standards over the past 20 years, announced last week by the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard.

Girls' GCSE scores now outstrip those of boys in eight out of 11 major subjects, research carried out in conjunction with one of the leading examination boards will show. Boys are most likely to do well in biology and are slightly ahead in maths and chemistry, but girls do best in English, history, geography, combined science and physics. Girls gain 15 per cent more A-C grades than boys.

But by A-Level the picture has changed round. Researchers found that boys outperformed girls at A-Level in six out of eight subjects, with girls doing best only in physics and geography. The boys achieved better scores in maths, English, biology, chemistry, French and history.

The new report, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the first attempt to explain why this "cross-over" occurs during the two years students spend in the sixth form.The researchers looked at 3,000 examination scripts provided by the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council, questioned 200 school departmental heads, and interviewed students.

The common explanation that girls' diligence in coursework gave them the edge at GCSE did not hold water, they found. While girls did slightly better than boys in coursework, which contributes up to 40 per cent of GCSE marks, they did much better in exams.

However, the researchers conclude that the A-Level examination itself is partly responsible for much of the gender bias which seems to occur at 18, because sixth form study is geared to it. They say the advantage of GCSE for girls lies largely in the fact that it employs a variety of approaches - coursework and essay exams as well as multiple-choice and short-answer papers.

These methods allow for the subject to be made more relevant to students' experience and - it is argued - more accessible to girls. However, stereotypical beliefs among both pupils and teachers about what subjects girls are good at come strongly into play when A-Level subject choices are made.

"What is becoming evident is that we have two examination systems at 16 and 18 that are starkly different . . . and producing different outcomes," the report warns. It says examinations officials should look again at syllabuses, methods of assessment and curricula.

Janette Elwood, who will present the interim findings at the British Educational Research Association conference this week, said: "I am not yet ready to say girls are being discriminated against because if they choose to do physics, they do well. But I think we should be asking whether we should change the emphasis to make [the A-Level exam] more accessible."

Keith Weller, assistant chief executive of SCAA, said the research made some valid points. "As a consequence of looking at the way papers are put together, what is in them and how the candidates respond to them, part of what we want to do is to know whether there are features which cause candidates to react in different ways," he said.