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Are the new A-levels stopping girls reaching their full potential?

Early evidence suggests a move away from coursework may not be impacting the genders equally.

Over the last two weeks, students across the UK have received their GCSE and A-level grades. This year's cohort were the first to take new “reformed” exams across a range of subjects. 

The changes were – like most of the tinkering with our education system – designed to correct perceived failings in how we teach and test our children. Yet there is early evidence that some of them may have tipped the scales based on attributes that have little to do with innate aptitude or ability to learn, and more to do with how we socialise girls to to behave.

In the new GCSEs, girls continued the recent trend and retained their lead over boys, doing particularly well at gaining the highest “nine” grade in the new scoring system. But in the higher grades at A-level, girls fell behind boys for the first time in 17 years.

Across all A-level subjects and throughout the UK this year, boys moved ahead of girls at the A-A* level grades, with 26.6 per cent achieving one of the two top results. That fits with the long-term pattern which has seen boys slowly closing the gap with girls. But their big jump from 0.3 per cent below girls in 2016 to 0.5 per cent ahead this year, is an anomalously large leap forward – why?

There are many possible reasons. More boys may have taken more subjects which score well. Or more boys who would not have done as well as their peers in the A-level structure could have opted out of A-levels in favour of vocational courses. But there is one major change to the A-level exam system that could have had a huge impact – the shift towards less coursework and less modular testing.

Some academics had already predicted that such change would work against girls. Research from Professor Alan Smithers from the University of Buckingham has pointed out how girls’ results started to climb with the introduction of modular exams in 2002. Meanwhile, Spanish researchers have shown that girls perform best in classroom tests rather than in national exams, says Professor Therese Hopfenbeck, director of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment.

These conclusions appear to be supported by the results from the new A-level exams. Within England's 13 new reformed subjects, 23.4 per cent of both genders gained an A or A*. But the proportion of all girls in this group fell by 1.1 percentage points from 2016’s results, compared to just a 0.2 point fall for boys. 

According to Jo Boaler, a former teacher in London and now a Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, research shows girls and boys are equally capable across various systems of testing, but girls are socialised to be more anxious in some test conditions. “In the PISA results which came out recently we saw boys ahead of girls in maths. But when they factored in levels of anxiety those differences completely disappeared,” she says. Similarly, coursework is a less anxiety-inducing method of testing, where you can show what you can do in a relaxed environment.

It is also likely that high-achieving girls are most susceptible to feeling anxious about their own abilities. “One of the things we know about mindsets is that the people with the most fixed mindsets across the whole school system are high achieving girls,” explains Professor Boaler. “These are the girls that we particularly need to think positively about themselves and believe in themselves. And changing from coursework to an exam system would definitely have an impact on that.”

This is something I wish I’d known a decade ago, when I received my own AS-level exam results. Once again I’d under-performed in my most loved subject, English, and it was only the knowledge that I was good at coursework (plus the encouragement of a brilliant new teacher freshly arrived at my Devon comprehensive from Westminster boys' school), which gave me the courage to apply for Oxford anyway. Three years later I’d finally gain enough confidence in my exam technique to get a first class degree. 

So why did the government move away from the coursework and modular methods of testing? In 2014 Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey said that “non-exam assessments do not always test the skills they are meant to assess, they can disrupt classroom time better spent on teaching and learning and may provide limited evidence of performance across a group of students if they all get limited marks.”

But Professor Boaler is concerned that the current government has not properly considered the impact that moving back to more linear, timed testing has. In the USA, schools and districts are pulling back on maths fact tests (speed testing on times-tables), she says, which are now thought to be responsible for the onset of maths anxiety in kids. In contrast, the UK has automated them so that students are now constantly being tested by computers. “On the question of why aren’t the government doing things differently, I don’t even know what to say other than that the research is there and they don’t care about it.”

Professor Therese Hopfenbeck is similarly concerned that a lack of consideration has been given to how exams are experienced across social divides, not just those of gender: “It's harder for students who are coming from a poor background to be able to succeed and believe in themselves than students from a higher economic background – and this is something we see in all the previous research studies. I think that is of concern for our democracy.”

The result is a worrying sense that in a rush to appear “tough” on educational standards, the government has risked hurting the ability of students to meet their full potential when it matters most.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left