Peter Collison, Head of Formative Assessment and School Platforms at RM

Call for answers on boys' "underperformance" in exams 

HEPI today (24 Aug) published new analysis of this year’s A level results with a particular focus on outcomes by gender.

Their findings show:

  • boys are 20 per cent less likely to be do A levels than girls;
  • ‘systemic bias against boys’ in teacher assessed grades; and
  • a continuing decline in English as a subject and a static picture for STEM.

Report author, Mary Curnock Cook OBE, a former CEO of UCAS, the Chair of the new UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and a HEPI Trustee, said:

‘The unexplained differences in Teacher Assessed Grades between boys and girls raise difficult questions about boys’ underperformance in education more generally. If the possibility of systemic bias against boys can’t be eliminated, it needs to be addressed urgently by policymakers.’

Peter Collison, Head of Formative Assessment and School Platforms at RM, explains why assessment methods should be held to account and educators must develop a new, consistent approach to assessment in order to avoid attainment gaps:

“While all schools strive for unbiased assessment, it’s often easier said than done to execute. News, then, that there are fresh calls for an inquiry into why it is boys underperform in school exams compared to girls, should come as no surprise after A Level and GCSE grades were decided by teachers for the second year running. After twelve months where students were forced to adapt the way they learn, and twelve months spent developing new remote and hybrid teaching methods, challenges in assessment were to be expected this year – but that doesn’t mean assessment shouldn’t still be held to account.

“Quite the contrary. In England especially, the value of assessment outcomes is huge and so too are the consequences when assessment is felt to be unfair, biased or inconsistent – either across certain schools, certain demographics, or simply entire generations in the education system. It’s also important to keep in mind that a consistent approach to assessment doesn’t have to mean testing all students in the same way, or even on the same day. It’s a question of equality vs equity, and education systems should carefully consider which methods of assessment – for instance, establishing the right questions, in the best context, delivered in an authentic way – best suit each individual learner.

“What’s more, knowing when to assess a student is just as important as knowing how to assess them. Assessment methods should be trusted and reliable and that means establishing the best outcomes from students by giving all learners a fair crack at the whip. It’s only once the education sector figures out its own unique balance between formative and summative assessments – and avoid being drawn into one camp or another – that attainment gaps will become a thing of the past. Until then, calls for action like this one should be encouraged so that we can find new and improved methods of assessing pupils in ways which work for them.”

Why DO Girls Outdo Boys ay School and College? 

20th Aug 2021: Throughout the country girls are outperforming boys at every stage in the educational system from early years Sats, GCSEs, A-levels, university admissions and degree classifications.

In the North of England they are more likely to get three top A-level passes.

This year more women have been accepted for university than men.

Six out of 10 graduates today are women, compared to just 3 out of 10 in 1979!

Are girls 'brighter' than boys? Why do females do better than males at school or college?

Educationalists put this down to a combination of external (outside school) and internal factors (inside school).

One factor has been the impact of feminist ideas and the role of the women's movement. The advent of 'second-wave feminism' in the seventies led to success in improving the legal rights of women such as the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act 1975. This boosted the expectations and self-esteem of young women. They have also challenged the traditional stereotypes of women's roles as carers. For sociologists like Sue Sharpe, more women in the third decade of the 21st century look beyond the 1960s role of 'housewife' an aspire to higher education, careers and autonomy.

In the last two decades there has been a decline in the number of what were traditionally regarded as 'men's jobs', especially in semi-skilled and unskilled manual work, while there's been a sharp increase in employment opportunities for women in the service sector.

For other social scientists, a greater emphasis on equality, diversity and inclusion in the classroom has had an impact in enabling girls to fulfil their potential. Policies such as monitoring learning materials for gender bias to help schools meet their needs and aspirations as well as diversity in the curriculum has contributed  to their success. Likewise most schools and colleges promote 'girl-friendliness', not only in male-dominated subjects but across the whole range of experience of girls within the system.

Campaigns such as WISE (Women into Science and engineering) have aimed to inspire girls and attract them into studying and following careers into male-dominated STEM subjects. Teachers today are much more sensitive about avoiding gender stereotyping in the classroom.

Research by Dr Jake Anders and Jennie Golding suggest that girls work harder than boys in school. They put more effort into their work; they spend more time on completing homework promptly and they take more care with the way their work is presented. Furthermore they are better organised. They are more likely to have a ring-binder for each subject than boys. For Golding the improved performance at top grades by girls is partly attributable to the replacement of formal external exams with internal teacher assessment.

Other studies have suggested that teachers have higher expectations of girls leading to a ''self-fulfilling prophecy'' of educational success. Girls are more cooperative and better behaved at school, and they generally care more than boys about the opinions of their teachers. As a result teachers have greater expectations of them, and young women gain from a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.

Educational research notes that girls tend to read more than boys. They talk about their homework. This develops the language and reasoning skills which gives them an advantage at school. Others have noted that girls mature earlier than boys. By the age of 16, it's estimated by psychologists that girls are more mature than boys by two years. Put bluntly, this mean that girls are more likely to see formal assessment in a more responsible way, and recognise its seriousness and significance of the educational and occupational pathways that lie ahead of them.

The central challenge today facing policy-makers is meeting the needs of the ''forgotten third'' - those girls and boys from disadvantaged backgrounds who didn't leave school with a GCSE pass or a Btec qualification.

By Stephen Lambert, Director of Education4Democracy CIC

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