How Exams Are Fixed In Favour Of Girls
By Madsen Pirie. President of the Adam Smith Institute

Reproduced from The Spectator


Female examinees continue to carry all before them. Firstly they made waves in the GCSE exams, outperforming their male counterparts in every year since GCSEs replaced O-levels in 1988. Then, last summer, and for the first time, they edged ahead of boys in A-level results, with girls gaining more A-grade passes than boys did. Now they are reported to have completed the hat-trick, winning more university degrees with first class honours than boys could manage.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Authority, over 11,000 women gained first class honours degrees at Britain's 170 universities, against only 10,800 achieved by the men. This reverses the previous year's position, when 10,500 men gained firsts, as opposed to 10,200 women. Only five years ago, men gained 1,800 more first class honours degrees than women. The number of women with firsts has trebled in a decade, with women now leading the field in 12 of the 17 subject areas, including medicine, law and business. Partly they gain more of the firsts because there are more of them. They make up 55 percent of the university population, and gain more of all qualifications. There is, nonetheless, a clear trend line running through education.

Analysts have been quick to assign causes. Their superior performance at GCSEs represented, we were told, the fact that girls matured much earlier, and took a more serious-minded, adult attitude to education. Last year's A-level results gave the commentators a field day. Educational psychologists solemnly laid blame on the 'laddish' culture espoused by schoolboys. It was "uncool" we were told, for boys to be seen as swots. Even the ones who did work had to do so furtively for fear of losing face with their peer group. Some commentators even managed to lay the blame on black teenagers, for setting poor role models for their white, middle class counterparts, and giving academic success no street cred. David Blunkett's office set up an enquiry headed by Judith Ireson of the University of London's Institute of Education. Part of its remit has been to investigate whether the 'slump' in boys' results has been caused by the rise of a laddish culture.

Some have been quick off the mark to account for the success of girls at university. Tony Higgins, of the University Admissions Service, says that 30 years of work encouraging girls to stay in higher education has paid dividends. No doubt others will tell us earnestly why male undergraduates prefer to indulge in the drinking and clubbing culture of university life, while their more serious minded female colleagues are hitting the books until the library closes. Some might see the extra effort by women as a result of the changing nature of society. Few women now think in terms of marriage as a career; most assume they will have to work for a living, and that qualifications will matter more than they did before. A recent MORI poll for the Adam Smith Institute showed that 48 percent of women, marginally more than men, list "owning and running my own business" among their career aspirations. If women once viewed university qualifications less seriously, it is no longer true.

There is an alternative explanation for the recent successes of girls, which many of those involved in education accept readily. It is that boys and girls have not changed very much in their habits and skills, but the examinations themselves have changed. The old exams, O-levels, A-levels and degree finals tended to reward the qualities which boys are good at. That is, they favoured risk taking and grasp of the big picture, rather than the more systematic, consistent, attention-to-detail qualities which favour girls. The old O-level, with its high risk, swot it all up for the final throw, and then attempt not more than four out of nine questions, was a boys' exam. The GCSEs which replaced them place much more emphasis on systematic preparation in modules, worked on consistently over time. It is not surprising that girls have done better since the change was made, since these represent the way girls work.

It is not that one approach is better than the other, just that they are different. One brings out the strengths of boys, the other brings out the strengths of girls. Girls began to do better, not because the boys 'slumped,' but because the exams were feminized. A Cambridge don neatly encapsulated the difference to me: "the boy sees the big picture, takes risks, and often misses important material. The girl is systematic, does the detailed work, and sometimes misses the central thesis." He gave a vivid account of a recent oral, in which a boy and a girl were both defending their dissertation for finals. "They went to type," he said. "The girl had done an amazing amount of detail, but had not grasped what it all added up to. The boy saw instantly what it was all about, but was fuzzy on the supporting evidence. Both of them gained firsts."

IQ tests routinely recognize the difference, and make allowances accordingly. Boys score better with numbers, pattern recognition, and abstract reasoning. Girls do better with language and situational logic. An IQ test intended for both sexes will have sections which play to each of the different skills, to avoid being easier for the one sex than the other. MENSA, the high IQ society, uses a variety of different tests, and its educational psychologists take it as axiomatic that girls do better on some, boys on others.

Chris Woodhead, the government's former chief inspector of schools, recognizes the change. "There is no doubt," he says, "that elements have been incorporated into school examinations which girls find easier to do than boys."

Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University's Centre for Education and Employment Research, takes a broader view. "Exams are simply easier," he says. "They present less of a challenge, and are more easily coped with by conscientious and consistent application. Girls apply themselves more." Not only does he think that GCSEs are less challenging than O-levels because they cater for a wider ability range; he also points out that A-levels have been broadened, incorporating modules, and covering a greater range of subjects. Twice as many people are now expected to pass through university as were once expected to pass the eleven-plus. "Where once there was history and physics," he says, "we now have health studies, social care, leisure and tourism."

Professor Smithers also thinks the changes in assessment are significant. He points out that what used to be decided by terminal examination is often now determined in part by modules and continuous assessment, both of which favour the more systematic approach taken by girls rather than the high risk strategy which appeals more to boys.

Even the method of marking has changed. Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas and a former teacher herself, says that markers formerly used their professional expertise on a loose set of criteria to see which grade a script merited, or whether it should fail. Today a more prescriptive and detailed checklist is issued, including such factors as "situated in historical context," "personal response to the literature," or "shows awareness of style." This can result, she claims, "in rewarding blindly those who methodically - even dully - fulfil the checklist criteria, regardless of passion, insight or flair, and penalizing those of a more creative or individual style."

Mark Coote, a teacher at the City of London Freemen's School at Ashtead, thinks that "the whole nature of GCSE and AS/A level examinations favours the girls' approach to working." His 17 years of teaching experience has persuaded him that girls fare better over modular courses where they can plan their study time and strategy, and that they are better time-keepers, and have the self-discipline to meet deadlines. "Boys," he says, "do play a high risk strategy, preferring last minute cramming. They tend to rise to the challenge of final examinations where there is all (or nothing) to play for." He cannot, in his teaching experience, remember a single girl pupil who has missed a coursework deadline for GCSE assessment, other than for genuine illness. He has, however, "lost count of the number of boys who have worked until three in the morning to meet the deadline, or missed it altogether." "Boys perform less well in coursework than girls," he tells us, "although make up ground in the final exams."

The questions themselves have changed. An O-level question was demanding of fact and understanding. Candidates might have been asked to outline the main arguments presented in the 1689 Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement of 1701, and the effect this might have had on Catholics. A modern GCSE question, encouraging empathy, might ask "How might you have felt as a Jewish child growing up in Nazi Germany?" An old O-level question might have asked why the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745 ended in failure. A typical GCSE question on the same subject, using stimulus material such as a picture, might ask as its first question (carrying 1 mark) "Why is Bonnie Prince Charlie wearing tartan?"

Given these facts, the outcome is less surprising. If we change the structure of our examinations, and the way they are marked, in ways which play to girls' strengths, we can hardly be surprised if boys do less well than they did before. It is not that boys are becoming less able, or less academic than they were previously. It is that they now face examinations which have been feminized, and which fail to bring out their strong points. It is not that the exams were right before, and are wrong now. It is that they were boy-friendly before, and are now girl-friendly. The previous exams discriminated against girls just as much as the present ones discriminate against boys. Commentators have observed that modern society has become to some degree feminized. The same has happened to examinations. They have been remade, perhaps unconsciously, in a feminine image which downplays competition and risk, both of which favour boys.

If we wish boys to do better in GCSEs, A-levels and University Degrees, we do not need psychological insights into the 'laddish' culture, or to provide them with more worthy role models, or to tell them they are under-achievers. We need examinations which appeal to them and which bring out their strengths. One answer might be to have different examination boards providing different styles of exam, so that teachers or students could select ones which suited the character of the applicant. Girls might be entered for those which featured more modules and course-work; boys might be steered towards ones in which the final examination counted for more.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what sort of society we are producing if we feminize the entry qualification into its leadership positions. If we select the methodical over the risk-takers, male or female, and the systematic in preference to those with insight, will Britain still be capable of meeting the challenges the world throws our way? While the country might be more peaceable, more sensitive to the needs of its citizens, and more efficient in applying itself to the detail of good management, we might ask if it will still be as inventive and creative? Will it still produce Penicillin and hovercraft? Or will it just produce Civil Servants?

One might wonder how the British economy would fare if its educational system had extinguished the flash and fire of entrepreneurial zeal, and replaced it by the duller expectations of systematic and steady progress. One might also wonder, in times of rapid change, if such a Britain would be adaptive, capable of responding instantly when needs arise? The old examinations were as much a test of character as of educational attainment. They tested the ability to stand up under pressure, and to hold one's nerve in a crisis. The new exams undoubtedly test character, too, but of a very different quality. Whether we like it or not, they are helping to determine the sort of country we will become.




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