Boys are seriously underperforming girls at all levels of education from nursery school to university. This year’s GCSE and A-level results are the latest striking examples. Ahead from the first year of the GCSE in 1988, girls outscored boys for top grades in 2021 by nine percentage points. They were ahead in all but two of the 47 subject categories, with boys just ahead in physics and statistics. The better school performance of girls has long been known, but it tends to be brushed aside, because boys in the past have come out on top in the workplace, so it has been assumed that it does not matter very much.
On the contrary, it goes to the heart of education. It could just be that girls are intrinsically smarter and, on the face of it, school and university results point in that direction. But I would like to think they are not and it is that boys are not fully developing their potential. If this is the case, it is an issue so serious as to demand a major inquiry. I would go as far as to suggest that government should call a Royal Commission for the first time since 2000.
Many possible explanations have been offered for the gender gap, but we do not know enough to distinguish the real from the merely plausible. It is only when we have that understanding that we will be able to do something about it. It is too big a task for research projects alone because each will be approached from a particular perspective, whether neuroscientific, chromosomal, psychological, sociological, educational or some other. It needs the clout of a Royal Commission to take charge, sort the wheat from the chaff, and put forward recommendations.
The gap could be biological. Boys lag behind in their reading from an early age, and reading underpins the whole of education. Girls are well ahead not only in this country, but also in OECD’s 2018 PISA tests of 15-year-olds across a range of cultures, social systems and economies. On average, they are ahead by 30 points when the overall mean is 487. The biggest difference among the 76 countries taking part was in Qatar where it was 65 points, in Finland it was 52, with the narrowest gap of ten points in Peru and Colombia.
Boys were ahead in maths but only by the small margin of five points, and this relates to an advantage baby boys have in numerical and spatial abilities. But whereas girls’ advantage in reading and verbal skills generally increases during education, boys’ in science and maths contracts. This suggests that education is making a difference, developing girls to a greater extent than boys. Indeed, they were able to score higher in science in PISA 2018 and in GCSE maths in 2021. Nevertheless, boys are more attracted to maths, physics and engineering at both A-level and university, but again in contrast to the silence on boys’ performance, this under-representation has led to an outcry and a concerted effort to get more women into science.
The gap in school performance could also arise from social factors. The clearest example is what used to happen to girls. In this country, they used to be ahead in primary and the early years of secondary education, but their performance gradually tailed off. This was the justification for admitting boys to grammar schools on lower scores than girls. The brightest pupil in my class at our East End grammar school was a girl who had enviable talent. But her parents absolutely insisted that she left at 16 although she wanted to stay on. They were adamant that more education was wasted on a girl, and that she would be much better off earning a wage and looking to make a good marriage. Since then over the years, society’s script for girls has changed considerably and now their talents have the chance to flower and they can go as far as their achievements and ambitions will take them. But not in all countries, and in Afghanistan we are about to see a different social system changing the lives of women dramatically.
The explanation of why white working boys do so badly in school, worse than white working class girls, and much worse than other ethnic groups, could also be social factors. A recent House of Commons Select Committee inquiry commented they have been forgotten and have suffered decades of neglect. Among the many reasons offered for their poor performance have been poverty, lack of parental support, family experience of education, not seeing the point of school, and lack of access to good schools. It could also be that biological factors and educational factors are involved, but many consider it inappropriate to even mention this. Now, I am from the working class myself, and I know that quite a number of the boys I was at primary school with did not have the wherewithal or the interest to do well.
A third group of explanations centre on education itself. When reflecting on their school experiences men quite often say that they feel their education was slanted towards girls, in part because most of the teachers were female. The required reading was not to their taste, Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, rather than For Whom the Bell Tolls. They thought that there was not enough direct instruction nor enough tasters of future employment opportunities, with the emphasis on academic work, staying on and going to university. They reckoned also that boys find it harder to sit still and are more inclined to be bolshie, while girls consistently and methodically apply themselves to the work set however dull or routine. Boys may even shy away from working hard for fear of being thought a ‘girly swat’. None of this may be true, but it is widely believed, and it would be good for it to be subject to careful investigation.
The plethora of possible explanations could arise because it is a complex phenomenon, but more likely it is that we do not sufficiently understand what is going on. This leaves us without a sound basis for tackling boys’ performance relative to girls. Researchers will say we need more money for research and they are right, but that research is likely to be from a particular perspective and conclusions would be drawn within that framework. We really need a high-level inquiry to draw the different approaches together and tease out the most promising explanations. Something along the lines of the Dearing Inquiry into Higher Education of 1996 would do it. But the issue is so serious as to call for a Royal Commission, the first since the turn of the century.