Girl power: it’s not on the wane just yet


Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies
Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

Are the new GCSE and A-levels signalling the end of dumbing down of examinations or is it just a different approach? Does the return to a higher-stakes, end-of-course examination system benefit some students more than others? Does it benefit boys more than girls?

These are some of the questions that have been considered across the educational world in recent months and it has been interesting to look at some of the new style questions now being used at A Level and to review the more difficult content and more demanding assessments that we see at GCSE. The government’s desire to introduce greater rigour into the examination courses for our 14 to 18-year-olds certainly seems to have come about. It is not just the content, of course, which affects the level of challenge being given to students, as the way material has to be learned, assimilated and then used, also has an impact on the level of understanding and skill which is required.

Over the last 20 years or so, our national examination system has been characterised by the dominance of a modular approach to its structure and to assessment. Even at sixth form level, students have had the syllabus broken down into easily digestible and relatively bite-size portions, with examinations which test just one section of the syllabus at a time, before then moving on to something different. Of course, one of the consequences of this modular structure was the opportunity to retake some modules, even to retake them more than once. It is difficult to argue that such an approach lessened the need to develop any overarching or integrated understanding of the subject. The need to absorb and understand concepts more deeply in order to synthesise this accumulated knowledge and then to use it more broadly was minimal. The feedback from examinations this summer suggests that the new courses have indeed been more challenging, and that the assessment has been tougher, both with the newly graded 1 to 9 GCSEs and the linear reformed A Levels.

There has also been some evidence that these new exams have reduced the dominance of girls’ success, which has been a significant change since the 1980s. The relative underachievement of girls was one of the major concerns of UK schools back then and one of the factors considered to be important was the high-stakes nature of a terminal examination system as opposed to a continuous assessment process, with the high-stakes examination seen as favouring the learning styles of boys at the expense of girls. Since the 1980s the situation has reversed, with girls outperforming boys in the majority of subjects – by the mid-2000s, almost 65% of girls were achieving five GCSEs at grade A*-C, compared to about 55% of boys. Girls were generally outperforming boys at A Level by this stage too, and we then found ourselves concerned with the underperformance of boys.

Researchers discovered that the changes were due to far more factors than merely a change in the way examinations were structured. Feminism had raised girls’ expectations and their self-esteem, more mothers were in paid employment and acting as positive role models for their daughters, the national curriculum had made more subjects compulsory and led to a reduction in gender stereotyping. Boys, by contrast, had seen a decline in traditional male jobs and role models, a rise in laddish subcultures and a disdain for hard work as lacking street cred.

Only a small proportion of the relative improvement in the performance of girls was regarded as being due to a more girl-friendly assessment system: that of coursework assessment, which rewards consistent diligence rather than short-term performance for the test. I have been surprised at recent headlines which emphasised that many of the most selective girls-only private schools seem to have seen a significant dip in their proportion of top grades.

Girl-power on the wane? Too early, I reckon, to think that the boys will have it more their own way! Let’s wait and see…

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