It is well known that boys do less well at school than girls. This is true from the earliest years of primary schooling through to A Level. This male disadvantage carries through to higher education. Every year the number of degrees awarded to women exceeds the number awarded to men by an increasing amount. In 2015 there were 35% more women awarded degrees than men.
Perhaps less appreciated is that boys’ educational attainment in Wales is behind even that for boys in the UK as a whole. This is illustrated here for GCSE attainment and entry into higher education. First some general observations are made regarding relative attainment of the two sexes in schooling between ages 6 and 14.
Primary and Early Secondary Schooling in Wales
The National Reading and Numeracy Test Results for Wales were released on 25th August 2016. The data tables have been used to plot Figures 1 to 4, below. These shows the difference in the percentage of boys and the percentage of girls scoring in the three bands: below the 85 percentile, between the 85 and 115 percentile, and above the 115 percentile. The four histograms address respectively: reading English, reading Welsh, procedural-numerical and reasoning-numerical. A positive bar indicates an excess of boys, a negative bar an excess of girls. Each histogram shows result for years 2 to 9, corresponding to ages 6 to 14.
Figures 1 and 2 reveal, as is well known, a distinct superiority of girls over boys in reading (English, and even more emphatically in Welsh).
Figure 3 reveals a clear superiority of boys in procedural numeracy, whilst Figure 4 indicates the genders are closer in reasoning numeracy, though there are more boys at both the higher and lower achievement levels (a familiar phenomenon in gender distributions of all sorts).
However, the most significant fact revealed by Figures 1 to 4 is that schooling has virtually no effect upon the relative performance of the two sexes: the histograms are persistent from year 2 (age 6/7) to year 9 (age 13/14). One is forced to conclude that either schools are incompetent or that there are innate differences between the sexes which the schools can hardly be expected to overcome.
Figure 1 – click to enlarge
Attainment at GCSE / Key Stage 4
A standard measure of attainment at GCSE (typically at age 16) is defined as the percentage of pupils achieving at least five GCSE passes at grades A* to C (or the equivalent), including English or Welsh and mathematics. The data in Tables 1, below, are taken from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 2015 report “Is Britain Fairer?“. The data relates to state or local authority maintained schools. The Table shows that,
- Boys do worse than girls, throughout the UK;
- Welsh boys do worse than English boys;
- Poor white boys are the poorest performing demographic, with poor white Welsh boys the bottom of the heap.
Here “poor” is defined by being the recipient of free school meals (FSM).
Table 1a: GCSE Attainment: Percentage Reaching the Standard (2008/9)
Table 1b: GCSE Attainment: Percentage Reaching the Standard (2012/13)
|England + Wales|
|White Non-FSM Girls||69.5%|
|White Non-FSM Boys||59.1%|
|White FSM Girls||37.1%|
|White FSM Boys||28.3%|
The EHRC report “Is Wales Fairer?” gives the attainment level for FSM pupils in Wales to be 25.8%. But this is for boys and girls. From Table 1b, girls outperform boys by 8.3% or more, so this implies that Welsh FSM boys’ score is probably less than 22%. This is a shockingly poor result given that children with SEN score barely worse at 17%. Oddly the actual data have not been revealed.
A Level performance at the higher grades is implicit in entry to higher education, which is addressed below. However here are some general remarks relating to Wales.
Figure 5 shows the ten A level subjects with the largest imbalance of the sexes. The greater popularity of computing, physics and further maths amongst boys will surprise no one. Looking back at Figures 3 and 4 it can be seen that this bias of boys is evident at age 6, because these A level subjects will be taken almost exclusively by those who have persistently scored above the 115 percentile in numeracy.
However, 7 of the 10 most gender-skewed subjects feature female dominance – and this dominance is every bit as emphatic as the boys’ dominance in STEM subjects. Welsh is the second most gender skewed subject after performing arts. Again we can see the origin of this at age 6 in Figure 2.
Figure 5: A Levels – Biggest Gender Divide – click to enlarge
Further bad news for proponents of the Welsh language is that Welsh A level features amongst those subjects with the biggest drop in student numbers, Figure 6.
Figure 6: A Levels – Most Drop in Student Numbers
An informal survey carried out by The Student Room reveals the degree of contentment of A level candidates with their results this year. “The North West of England are the happiest with their grades, with 84 per cent saying they are happy, compared with just 16 per cent who said they were sad. At the other end of the spectrum, Welsh students are most disappointed with their grades (58 per cent happy compared with 42 per cent sad)“, see Figure 7.
A level results are often the subject of gross misrepresentation in the media. The impression is given that the gender gap at A level is closing (for example see this article in The Telegraph last year). This year The Telegraph claimed again that, “According to official figures, the gap between boys and girls achieving the top A* grades narrowed this year, with male students gaining 8.5 per cent of top A* grades compared with 7.7 per cent for females“. This is the sort of misrepresentation which gives statistics a bad name. As written it is simply false. Here’s the truth.
Across the UK as a whole there are substantially more girls taking, and passing, A levels than boys. In 2014 the number of boys taking A levels was 379,823 boys compared with 453,984 girls, i.e., 20% more girls. Also, more girls than boys got good A Levels (defined as grades A*, A or B), namely 11%, 27% and 36% more respectively – and it is this which drives the greater numbers of women who enter universities each year. (And females’ superior A level achievement can be traced to superior GCSE attainment, which is partly due to the nature of these awards and in part can be traced back to their superior verbal skills apparent since age 6).
Table 2: Numbers of A Level candidates obtaining the stated grade (2014)
|Excess of girls over boys||11%||27%||36%|
This picture was broadly unchanged in 2015, and I expect will be again when the 2016 data is published.
Male Participation in Higher Education in the UK as a Whole
This is addressed in Young Men a Decreasing Minority at Universities
Male Participation in Higher Education in Wales
Tables 3, below, give the number of UK students achieving higher education qualifications from HE establishments in Wales. Note that these data exclude foreign students. The data are taken from this link to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), Table 10a. Table 4 gives the number of foreign students achieving higher education qualifications from HE establishments in Wales, for all courses, both first and higher degrees. Salient points are,
- The number of UK students obtaining awards in Wales decreased between 2014 and 2015, whilst the number of foreign students obtaining awards in Wales increased. This is true for both sexes. It reflects the position in the UK as a whole and is probably a result of foreign students commanding higher fees, i.e., greater university income;
- The number of UK women being awarded first degrees by Welsh HE institutes exceeded that of UK men by ~37% in 2015, even larger than the gender gap in the UK as a whole (35%);
- The gender gap for postgraduate degrees is even larger, ~40%. This may be anticipated to have a knock-on effect on the gender ratio for university academic staff in due course;
- In the case of non-UK awards, men outnumber women.
Table 3a: Numbers of UK Students Achieving Qualifications from Higher Education Establishments in Wales, 2014
|Award Type||Women||Men||Excess of women*|
|Postgraduate, full time||2,245||1,645||36.5%|
|Postgraduate, part time||1,800||1,190||51.3%|
|First Degree, full time||10,285||8,155||26.1%|
|First Degree, part time||755||570||32.5%|
|First Degree, all||11,040||8,725||26.5%|
|All Awards, full time||13,800||11,120||24.1%|
|All Awards, part time||4,130||2,975||38.8%|
|All Awards, all||17,930||14,095||27.2%|
*100 x (w – m) / m
Table 3b: Numbers of UK Students Achieving Qualifications from Higher Education Establishments in Wales, 2015
|Award Type||Women||Men||Excess of women|
|Postgraduate, full time||2,140||1,595||34.2%|
|Postgraduate, part time||1,785||1,205||48.1%|
|First Degree, full time||9,680||7,100||36.3%|
|First Degree, part time||810||545||48.6%|
|First Degree, all||10,490||7,645||37.2%|
|All Awards, full time||13,390||10,165||31.7%|
|All Awards, part time||3,985||2,920||36.5%|
|All Awards, all||17,375||13,085||32.8%|
Table 4: Numbers of Non-UK Students Achieving Qualifications from Higher Education Establishments in Wales, 2014 and 2015
Interpretation and Opinion
Educational disadvantage to boys is apparent from the earliest stage of schooling. This works through the entire educational system, resulting in 35% fewer men gaining degrees than women (37% fewer in Wales). There are clear indications that this persistent educational under-achievement results from innately poorer verbal skills than girls when measured at the same, junior, age. However, there are also indications that this male verbal deficiency does not persist into adulthood – see, for example, the 2012 OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adults Competencies (PIAAC). This suggests that a different pedagogy should be deployed for the two sexes, especially as regards teaching verbal skills at junior ages – and perhaps recognising an age related differential in expectation.
However, male under-performance in education is a complex matter and unlikely to be entirely due to schooling. Wider cultural issues are likely to be significant as well, for example loss of motivation due to the diminished male role, the decline of marriage and fatherlessness. There is evidence that white working class boys actively avoid achieving too highly at school because conspicuous achievement meets with peer group disapprobation – a matter of far greater concern to boys (and girls) than adult exhortations.
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