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Chris McGovern: Single-sex education would benefit both boys and girls

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Times writer Emma Duncan wants to see more girls taking Mathematics A-Level. Good idea! “People with an A-level in Maths,” she informed readers, earn “on average 11 per cent more than those who did not.”

She, and a few other commentators on last week’s A-Level results, too, might benefit from a bit more mathematical teaching themselves. Emma states as “fact that boys got more A and A* grades [across all A-levels] than girls for the first time in 17 years…”. The entries data itself, however, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications, tells a different story:

Entries A* A*/A
Male 342859 30514 (4.0 per cent) 91200 (12.0 per cent)
Female 416374 32061 (4.2 per cent) 107841 (14.2 per cent)
Total 759233 62575 199041

(Percentage in brackets are the percentage of total entries).

This raw data is unequivocal. Once again girls outperformed boys at A-Level, including at the highest grades. This is explained, in part, by the greater number of entries from girls (approximately 55 per cent.

Boys did outnumber girls, however, in entries for Mathematics and achieved a higher proportion of top grades. The ratio of entries was roughly 3 to 2 in favour of boys. In Further Maths, Physics and Computing the boys were even more dominant – 73 per cent, 79 per cent and 90 per cent respectively. In contrast, it was girls who dominated entries for English Literature (76 per cent) and the performing arts (90 per cent).

Should we be worried? For Ms Duncan, “closing the gender gap” is the name of the educational game. This, she claims, will boost “our dismal productivity” and make “our society… at once fairer and richer.” Rather than looking to more and better quality technical/vocational education, she supposes that the answer is to “find a way of boosting girls’ confidence”.

Boys, though, lag behind girls at all levels of education with the exception of the higher reaches of mathematics, physics and computing. If either sex has a confidence problem when it comes to academic learning, it is surely the boys. The dominance of girls in many primary school classrooms, bossed as they overwhelmingly are by female teachers and support staff, is widely recognised in the staffroom. The BBC’s manipulative attempt to persuade us otherwise in its “No More Boys and Girls” experiment in identity theft is refuted by the comparative underperformance of boys.

In too many co-ed state comprehensive schools, certain subjects are seen as either more ‘girly’ or more ‘macho’ than others. Research from the Institute of Physics a few years ago indicated that almost half (49 per cent) of state schools do not have any girls at all studying the subject beyond GCSE. Girls at single sex schools, in contrast, were two and half times more likely to be study the subject at A-Level.

Equally informative was research from the Girls’ Schools Association revealing that at all-girls’ schools, pupils are 75 per cent more likely to take Mathematics A-level than at mixed schools. I know of one prestigious independent girls’ school where this summer, the number of pupils taking maths exceeded those taking English Literature by almost 4 to 1.

Emma Duncan claims that in education ‘superstar’ state, Singapore, the girls outperform the boys in mathematics. This is true of its younger pupils, as it is here, but not of its older ones. UK pupils are, in any case, so far behind those in Singapore that any meaningful comparison of standards can have only limited relevance. To match Singapore, our youngsters would need to be taking their A-Level at age 14 or 15 rather than at 18.

Given the peer pressure on young people in the UK these days to conform to ‘type’, we may have little alternative to single-sex education if we wish encourage more girls along the pathway of mathematics and science. For certain, the question to ask at an evening for prospective parents of a secondary school is how many girls are studying A-Level Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Computing.

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Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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