Gender gap in exams – how U.K. reforms impact girls

Why the widening gender gap in exams?

A-Levels have been dominated by girls for a long time, but with new regulations the gender gap in exams has swapped. Alice Bell looks closer at the changes.


The UK’s exam system has been radically overhauled this year, with the aim of making exams more rigorous.  After three decades in which girls have achieved better results, boys have now started to pull into the lead in some exam subjects. 

For those outside the UK, UK students do two sets of exams: GCSEs at 16, and A-levels at 18.  GCSEs are compulsory, although students have some freedom to choose the subjects; A-levels are entirely optional.  This year, the content of exams has been reshuffled to make them more difficult, and there’s a new focus on memorising facts.   Evaluation on coursework has been largely scrapped, so both A-levels and GCSEs are now assessed by a single final exam. 

gender gap in exams

Read: From Gender Roles to Career Goals

How the gender gap in exams have been impacted

I teach maths at a UK state school, and I’ve seen first-hand what a mess has been made of these exam reforms.  The old exam system certainly had room for improvement, and there are pockets of serious underachievement which need to be addressed.  But this year’s reforms were a bad idea, badly implemented. 

Girls have been edging ahead of boys at all levels since GCSEs were introduced in 1987, and the introduction of modular A-level exams in 2002 put them even further ahead.  Multiple government studies have looked at ways to boost boys’ results.  One common finding is that girls tend to do better at continual assessment and coursework, whereas boys usually prefer the death-or-glory experience of a single final exam – which is what they’ve been given this year. 

Read: Gender balance starts at home

In this year’s A-levels, boys edged ahead of girls at the top grades.  26.6% of boys got grade A or A*, compared with 26.1% of girls – a reversal of the recent gender gap. 

I don’t believe the exam system was deliberately manipulated to bring girls down.  Frankly, I don’t think anyone thought hard enough about these exam reforms to realise the possible side effects.  Michael Gove, the former education secretary who initiated the reforms, was famously unwilling to listen to expert opinion. 

At GCSE level, the pass gap actually widened this year to nearly 10 points: overall, 71% of girls passed their GCSEs, compared to 61.5% of boys.  If anything, these reforms seem to have exacerbated the gender divide.   

So how is it possible that similar changes can lead to girls doing better at GCSE yet worse at A-level?   

Read: Dad, Daughters & Dishes: How To Close the Gender Gap

Memorisation not ongoing evaluation

The new GCSE relies heavily on rote memorisation of useless facts: for example. Students are now expected to memorise entire texts for their English GCSE, rather than being allowed unmarked copies of the book to use in the exam.  This sort of meaningless task dovetails nicely with the kind of plodding, uninspired, using-lots-of-coloured-pens revision which not-very-bright teenage girls do well. 

A-levels are a different story.  By this point, only the academic kids are left, and most of the unmotivated boys are out in the workplace where they can’t affect the pass rate.  The exams are much harder, which means the structure of the test makes more of a difference, and the switch to assessing two years’ content in one exam will start to put girls at a disadvantage.   

Still, girls can feel relieved that other environments still keep a modular-style system, and judge performance by looking at a series of tasks over a long period of time.  University is one.  The workplace is another.

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Alice Bell
Alice Bell
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“Alice writes online about business, popular science, and women’s lifestyle. After a few years working her way around the world, she has settled in the north of England and taken a day job as a maths teacher. Her life’s ambition is to earn enough money to start repaying her student debt.”

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