When boys struggle at A-level, it’s a crisis. When girls do, it’s celebrated

The marginally better performance of boys at A-level is already being attributed to “tougher” exams. 

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It’s that time of year again, when papers post pictures of jumping girls while middle-aged white male celebrities pompously explain how failing their exams never did them any harm. It’s A-level results day!

This year, the Daily Mail greeted the results with a resounding “Let’s Hear It For The Boys” headline (it was later updated). For the second year in a row, male students outperformed girls. The Guardianmeanwhile, reported “the proportion of students in England gaining C grades or above in A-levels fell back this year, driven by a relatively weaker performance among girls”.

This shift towards improved boys’ results has come after a change to A-level courses was introduced. The new structure places more emphasis on final exams, with less coursework and fewer practical assessments. A 2013 study by the Independent Schools Association, as reported by the Telegraph, claimed that “a shift towards more end-of-course exams would [...] have a disproportionate impact on girls who appear to favour coursework-style tasks”.

First of all, a note of caution. Despite the Mail’s triumphant celebration of the boys, the gap between boys and girls remains small and, in fact, has narrowed since last year. At the highest grade levels, 26.6 per cent of boys were awarded A or A*, compared to 26.2 per cent of girls.

Girls are hardly doing badly then, and changing exam systems are always bound to have an impact on results as teachers grapple with new syllabuses and new ways of teaching.

But what is interesting is the difference in the way results are reported when boys achieve higher grades, compared to girls.

The War Against Boys”. “Britain’s Boy Crisis”. “The Betrayal of Boys”. These are just some headlines from the last decade or so about the attainment problem facing boys in education. With GCSE results, university applications and, for a time, A-levels all indicating that boys were falling behind girls academically; there was a very necessary concern that the education system was failing them. The crisis was blamed on everything from a lack of male role models, to boys showing off in the classroom, and O-level exam systems being better for boys than GCSE’s emphasis on coursework.

It remains absolutely vital that we build an education system that fosters and nurtures boys. However, when the results are reversed and we see boys outperforming girls, the media doesn’t call it a crisis. From “Let’s Hear It For The Boys” to a focus on how “Boys outperform girls”, are we (rightly) celebrating boys’ recovery, but ignoring what that means for girls?

In the run up to results day, the Telegraph reported: “Last year, boys beat girls to top A-level grades for the first time in 17 years, with the dramatic reversal of fortunes thought to be fuelled by the new ‘tougher’ A-levels.” 

The idea that coursework benefits girls has long been discussed. In 2006, Tony Sewell, then-director of The Learning Trust, declared: “Lessons and exams, with an emphasis on coursework, were now more suited to girls and were seriously disadvantaging boys.” A 2009 Higher Education Policy Institute report pinpointed coursework as a major factor behind boys' lower average grades at GCSE, compared to O-levels.

It’s hard not to read the Telegraph’s assessment as a dose of good old fashioned sexism. The idea that girls are better at slow and steady coursework, while boys prefer the adrenaline-fuelled exams race, are based on gendered assumptions that aren’t true for everyone (this 127-page report underlines the complex connections between gender and attainment). In France, where the exam-based baccalaureat includes a range of disciplines, girls do marginally better.

Furthermore, it is circular logic to suggest that A-levels are “tougher” if girls fall behind. Culturally, we have a tendancy to devalue skills that are gendered as female – from carework to women's sports. The sustained, research-driven aspects of coursework are equally as difficult to master as the retention of learned knowledge for exams. Further, coursework requires checking, redrafting, and consistent motivation, skills which are arguably more relevant to the workplace and require a certain level of resilience. 

Indeed, the idea that the education system is overly-accommodating to girls ignores the whole history of women’s education. In Cambridge, when the idea first arose of giving women degrees, male members of the university responded by burning effigies of women and battering down the gates of a women’s college. After 1944, publicly-funded medical schools were required to ensure women made up a fifth of doctors, but this quota was in effect a restriction on allowing greater numbers in (only this month the Tokyo medical school admitted rigging exam results to exclude women). Even trying to get women taught on syllabuses can provoke a backlash.

Nor are comparisons to O-levels, in which boys did better, are not particularly relevant – O-levels were discontinued in 1984, before the internet, and at a time when roughly half of Brits thought a woman’s main role was to stay at home and look after the family.

Obviously the tiny shift in results is not a crisis, and it would be histrionic to paint it as such. But should the trend continue, it is hard to imagine the same newspapers lamenting “The Betrayal of Girls”.

While we rightly celebrate the academic and vocational excellence of boys, let’s not ignore what’s happening with girls. Because what we absolutely need is an education and assessment system that works for all students, that plays to individual strengths, and supports young people of any gender to be the best they can possibly be.

Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.