Why flash boys shine at A-level

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The Independent Online
Boys have flair. Girls lack sparkle. Boys take risks. Girls work hard. It may sound like stereotyping, but the differences, according to new research, may hold the clue to the performance of the sexes in exams.

Researchers from London and Leicester universities investigated why boys out-perform girls in the top grades at A-level even though girls are ahead at GCSE. They concluded that the explanation may lie partly in the style of the exams. While GCSE appears to reward hard work and good organisation, A-level seems to require flair and confidence.

And at A-level, they suggest, boys' faith in their ability may override their lack of knowledge and skill.

Concern about the different performance of the sexes in exams has been growing. A report to be published today by the Office for Standards in Education will suggest strategies to help schools eliminate the gender divide.

Teachers questioned by the London and Leicester researchers talked of boys' "risk-taking approach, their greater willingness to sound stupid." Girls, they said, "write at length, lack the courage to discard irrelevant detail and perform less well in traditional exams." At GCSE, girls gain 8 per cent more A-to-C grades than boys in all subjects. But at A-level, boys do better, given their GCSE results, than do girls.

In English Literature, girls are ahead at GCSE but boys get a higher proportion of A and B grades at A-level. In A-level maths, boys maintain the lead they had at GCSE in A grades but lose their lead in B grades. In physics GCSE, girls are ahead at grades A and B, while at A-level boys get more A grades with girls still ahead at grade B.

Jannette Elwood, of London University's Institute of Education, and Chris Comber, of Leicester University's School of Education, looked at nearly 3,000 exam scripts, 200 questionnaires from school department heads and nine school case studies.

According to teachers who were questioned about the attributes of boys and girls, confidence is the only characteristic in which boys outclass girls.

However, the teachers observed clear differences of approach to A-level work. In English, one teacher commented: "The boys go through it like a Panzer division. Their writing is very clinical, point, point, point. Girls are much more, if this, then that, and, I might think this, and I might think that . . ."

The study examined the idea that girls do better than boys in coursework and found that in English they did slightly better. But the researchers point out that coursework plays only a small part in the final result.

Most types of literature are equally appealing to both sexes, teachers said, though boys have some difficulty with women poets and, to a lesser extent, women novelists such as Bronte and Woolf.

Ms Elwood said: "If what is required at A-level is different from what is required at GCSE, then teachers need to communicate this to students. Teachers could do more to explain the nature of assessment at A-level to girls."

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