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Primary Education News
News A-level results show shifting balance between sexes | Professor Alan Smithers
Changing A-level pattern will lead to claims of bias against girls, but this is to look at the results in the wrong way
We are in a new era of A-level examinations. The government wants them to be tougher and Ofqual, the qualifications watchdog, is determined to squeeze out grade inflation.
After years of moving ahead, girls seem to be more affected by these changes.
While girls got fewer top grades this year, boys' performance at A* and A improved. Girls continue to be ahead at most levels, but by much less than in their heyday at the beginning of the century.
The shifting balance seems to be due in part to the A-level reforms of 2010. These included bringing in the A* grade, reducing the number of modules from six to four, and a greater attempt to assess the whole course at the end.
Modular exams seem to favour girls, whereas boys tend to do better in end-of-course examinations. The accepted explanation is that girls are more inclined to apply themselves consistently and conscientiously throughout a course, while boys are driven more by a deadline. Boys did better at the top level in the 1990s, but when A-levels were modularised in 2002, girls leapt ahead. At all grades girls built up massive leads. But since 2010, the gaps have narrowed.
This year's A-level results show a pattern common to many psychological tests. There are more boys at the very top and the bottom, while the results of the girls are more bunched. A distinguished psychologist, Alice Heim, got a lot of stick when she jokingly called this "the mediocrity of women". Raising the bar at the top end with the A* seems to give boys more of a chance to show what they can do. Girls were ahead at the highest level in 2010, but boys have now more than reversed this to open up an appreciable lead.
The changing balance between the sexes is not due just to structural changes. There are more boys in subjects such as further maths, maths and physics where lots of A* are awarded, while girls are more likely to take subjects such as English and psychology where there are many fewer A*s. These differences between subjects are not due to the actual presence of boys or girls. They seem to be because it is easier for those with the talent to get top marks in maths and similar subjects where there are correct solutions than in those such as English where marking is more a matter of judgment.
Some of the results in subjects where one sex is in the majority were the reverse of what might have been expected. Girls got proportionally more A*s in further maths and physics, and boys got proportionally more A*s in English and French. What seems to be happening is that when it is unusual for a sex to take a subject, those who do take it have to be especially confident that they can do well in it.
The changing pattern of A-level results will inevitably lead to claims that the reforms of 2010 have biased the examination against girls, and that they must be toned down. But this is to look at the outcomes in the wrong way.
The important thing is to try to ensure that the examinations are the fairest and most accurate assessment possible of achievement in a subject. If the examination is true to the subject, and one or other sex does much better, then I say good luck to them.
Alan Smithers is a professor at the Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham