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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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Prostate cancer research has had a £75m welcome boost. Now let’s treat another killer of men

Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women.

The opening months of 2018 have seen a flurry of activity in men’s health. In February, figures were published showing that the number of male patients dying annually from prostate cancer – around 12,000 – has overtaken female deaths from breast cancer for the first time. Whether coincidence or not, this news was followed shortly by two celebrities going public with their personal diagnoses of prostate cancer – Stephen Fry, and former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull.

Fry and Turnbull used their profiles to urge other men to visit their doctors to get their PSA levels checked (a blood test that can be elevated in prostate cancer). Extrapolating from the numbers who subsequently came to ask me about getting screened, I would estimate that 300,000 GP consultations were generated nationwide on the back of the publicity.

Well-meaning as Fry’s and Turnbull’s interventions undoubtedly were, they won’t have made a jot of positive difference. In March, a large UK study confirmed findings from two previous trials: screening men by measuring PSA doesn’t actually result in any lives being saved, and exposes patients to harm by detecting many prostate cancers – which are often then treated aggressively – that would never have gone on to cause any symptoms.

This, then, is the backdrop for the recent declaration of “war on prostate cancer” by Theresa May. She announced £75m to fund research into developing an effective screening test and refining treatments. Leaving aside the headline-grabbing opportunism, the prospect of additional resources being dedicated to prostate cancer research is welcome.

One of the reasons breast cancer has dropped below prostate cancer in the mortality rankings is a huge investment in breast cancer research that has led to dramatic improvements in survival rates. This is an effect both of earlier detection through screening, and improved treatment outcomes. A similar effort directed towards prostate cancer will undoubtedly achieve similar results.

The reason breast cancer research has been far better resourced to date must be in part because the disease all too often affects women at a relatively young age – frequently when they have dependent children, and ought to have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies have been caused by breast malignancy. Prostate cancer, by contrast, while it does affect some men in midlife, is predominantly a disease of older age. We are more sanguine about a condition that typically comes at the end of a good innings. As such, prostate cancer research has struggled to achieve anything like the funding momentum that breast cancer research has enjoyed. May’s £75m will go some way to redressing the balance.

In March, another important men’s health campaign was launched: Project 84, commissioned by the charity Calm. Featuring 84 haunting life-size human sculptures by American artist Mark Jenkins, displayed on the rooftops of ITV’s London studios, the project aims to raise awareness of male suicide. Each week in the UK, 84 men kill themselves – three times the number of women. Suicide is the leading cause of male death under 45 – men who frequently have dependent children, and should have many decades of life to look forward to. So many family tragedies.

I well remember the stigma around cancer when I was growing up in the 1970s: people hardly dared breathe the word lest they became in some way tainted. Now we go on fun runs and wear pink ribbons to help beat the disease. We need a similar shift in attitudes to mental health, so that it becomes something people are comfortable talking about. This is gradually happening, particularly among women. But we could do with May declaring war on male suicide, and funding research into the reasons why so many men kill themselves, and why they don’t seem to access help that might just save their lives. 

Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel, “You”, is published by Salt

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge