Amid the celebrations by students getting their A-level and GCSE results this week, it almost passed without notice that girls had stormed the last bastion of male academic attainment by capturing more top grades in maths than boys in both qualifications.
The twin triumph confirms what has long been known among educationalists: in formal learning females outperform males at every level and every age group, from the early years through to Sats, GCSEs, A-levels, university admissions and degree classifications. It happens not just in the UK but in every developed country with few exceptions.
Does it mean, as one commentator has suggested, that girls are simply more clever? No, according to academics who study schools and assessment.
The answer is a more complicated web of attitudes and social factors that explain why boys often do better in maths and related subjects such as physics than in other subjects.
“It takes more than just being smart, for want of a better word, to do well in school,” said Jake Anders, the deputy director of University College London’s centre for education policy and equalising opportunity.
“Neuroscientists and psychologists are pretty sceptical of the idea that there are sex-based differences in our brains that would explain the schooling differences that we see.
“The idea of the ‘gendered brain’ has been rightly questioned. Rather than just saying ‘Oh, men don’t ask for directions and women’s can’t read maps,’ there is far more variation within groups [of men and women] in those things than there is sex-variation in them.
“But we know there are a bunch of societal expectations around gender and so on, and we are very susceptible to those, we internalise them and behave differently because of them. So it’s an important part of the story: what’s internalised by boys and girls and why they behave in the ways they are expected to behave.”
The outcome is that boys and girls engage differently with school, with girls likely to spend their time in the classroom more productively.
“It’s important to engage with school if you are going to do well at it. But you won’t if society has told you that because you are a boy you don’t need to. It comes back to terrible stereotypes that I am in no way trying to endorse,” Anders said.
But what makes maths more successful for boys? According to Jennie Golding of UCL’s Institute for Education, it may be that boys take to maths because they start off behind in other areas during their early years.
“By the time they start [primary] school, boys tend to be less developed in terms of language. What that means in class is that they perceive they are weak in reading and writing compared with girls, broadly speaking. But they take confidence that they develop at least as well in maths and spatially rather ahead of girls,” Golding said.
“By the time they go to school boys are typically much more aware of and able to visualise two and three dimensions than girls. But that’s the only real measurable difference in terms of mathematical preparedness.”
Golding said that the improved performance among the top grades by girls followed the replacement of formal exams with teacher assessment, with girls likely to benefit more than boys.
“The thing I know from being a [maths] teacher, and I had 35 years in the classroom, is that typically girls will work more steadily,” Golding said.
“One of the big frustrations of teaching teenage boys is that you can see the potential that’s there and the thinking that’s going on, but they very often haven’t got the maturity or the social outlook to apply that steadily through their teenage years.
“Give boys high-stakes exams and they have something to focus on that’s relatively short-term, and they can apply themselves for that relatively short period.”
But this year’s improved performance by girls in maths was the result of grades being awarded by teacher assessment after exams were cancelled due to the pandemic. That aside, Golding said there are good reasons for bringing back exams.
“Exams are a real catalyst for pulling together learning, for synthesising learning, and students tell us that’s more so in maths than in other subjects. That when they come to revise maths they begin to understand things in a new way,” she said.
Exams also benefit girls, according to Golding, if it means they suffer less from the “imposter syndrome” that UCL’s research has uncovered among women going on to higher education.
“We’ve got significant evidence of an increasing incidence, both from GCSE and A-level maths, of students saying ‘Yes I’ve got an A* but I didn’t really get it.’ University academics say we are seeing more of this, particularly among young women.
“Previously we could say: ‘But you got a 9 in the GCSE exams.’ But now they can say: ‘I didn’t really earn that.’”