Schools may have been guilty of “systemic bias” against boys by awarding higher A-level results to girls under this year’s teacher-assessed system, according to the former head of Ucas.
Mary Curnock Cook, who led the university admissions service for seven years, said that urgent action was needed by the government to address concerns that the system introduced as an alternative to traditional exams benefited girls over boys.
She said that it was harder to pinpoint the causes of the gender divide, but warned that it seemed to indicate a “systemic bias against boys”. This suggests that teacher grades may be influenced by other factors, such as behaviour and attitudes.
This year’s results showed that compared with last year the results gap between boys and girls had widened in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. All exams were cancelled this summer because of the pandemic, with teachers using mock exams, coursework and essays to assess pupils’ performance.
Girls widened their lead at the top grades from 3.3 percentage points last year to 4.8 percentage points this year. In all, 46.9 per cent of girls’ grades were A* or A, against 42.1 per cent for boys.
The head of one exam board suggested recently that girls had pulled ahead partly because they coped better with the lockdown and developed fewer mental health problems than boys. Jill Duffy, chief executive of OCR, also pointed to gender differences in learning styles, saying that continuous assessment benefited girls while boys “tend to pull it out of the bag when they come to an exam”.
Curnock Cook said that an analysis of results over the past two years showed girls had “enjoyed much more favourable grading across the board”, adding that there were “very large differences” in some subjects such as maths, physics, history and geography. In maths, girls gained more A* grades than boys for the first time on record.
In a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, she said: “This goes further than the usual concerns about boys’ underachievement in education compared to girls and needs a convincing explanation to eliminate what seems, on the face of it, to indicate systemic bias against boys.”
Curnock Cook also pointed to continuing disparities in the number of pupils entered for A-levels. This year 55 per cent of A-levels were sat by girls.
Last night the Department for Education rejected accusations of bias against boys, saying that it had been ruled out by Ofqual, the exams regulator. A spokesman said: “Pupils have worked incredibly hard during an extremely challenging time and they should be proud of their achievements. We are hugely grateful to teachers for their hard work in ensuring their pupils got the grades they deserved.
“This year we have seen an increase in top grades for all students at GCSE and A-levels, including for boys and girls. Ofqual’s analyses of results found no systemic disadvantage for students on the basis of particular protected characteristics.”
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