Home / Lead News / GCSEs: boys close gap on girls after exams overhaul

GCSEs: boys close gap on girls after exams overhaul

Larger share of boys gain top marks under new system while share of pupils gaining C or 4 also rises
Boys appear to have been the major beneficiary of the new GCSE examinations taken in England for the first time this summer, as results showed across-the-board improvements in boys gaining top marks while girls saw their share of top grades dip.
Across the UK the proportion of students gaining an A or 7 and above, the new top grade used in England, rose above 20%, with boys in England closing the gap on girls with an almost one percentage point rise to 17.1% with girls unchanged at 23.4%.
In the overhauled GCSEs in England, 4.3% of the results were the new highest 9 grade, set at a higher mark than the previous A* grade. The figures on Thursday showed 732 students attained seven or more grade 9s.
Despite the improvements by boys in England they were still outperformed by girls at the highest level: 5% of entries by girls received 9s, compared with just 3.6% of boys.
The proportion of pupils gaining a C or 4 in all subjects also rose to 66.9%, including a 0.5 percentage point rise in England alone to 66.6% with improvements among both boys and girls.
In individual subjects, boys in England had more significant improvements. In chemistry the proportion gaining a 7 or above went up from 38.7% last year to 42.3% while the proportion of girls went down from 45.7% last year to 43.9% this summer. Similar movements were seen in physics, biology and history.
About 90% of exam results in England this year come from the new GCSEs, the result of an overhaul ordered in 2014. The new exams in maths and English were first sat last year but this summer a further 20 subjects, including sciences, religious studies, history and geography, have been added.
The new style of GCSEs in England come with a new grading system, numbered from 9 to 1, replacing the old letter grades. The exam regulator, Ofqual, has said the previous top grades, A*-A, have been split into three grades, 7, 8 and 9, while the grade 4 and above matches those of C and above under the previous scheme.
Under the reforms the exams have also been made more testing, with subjects such as chemistry including a higher proportion of questions involving maths. The amount of assessed coursework has also been greatly reduced in many courses, making grades depend on final exam performance.
In Northern Ireland, where reformed GCSEs have yet to be introduced, the proportion of A* and As awarded to all students increased from 29.2% to 29.4%. The increase was driven by girls, 35.3% of whom got an A or higher, while 23.2% of boys received the same grades.
Michael Turner, director of the Joint Council on Qualifications which publishes the results, said this year’s results were “complicated”, because of significant changes in the age groups being entered for some exams.
Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, reassured candidates that the new exams would not cause turmoil in the grades awarded: “As in previous years, we have used the tried and tested principle of comparable outcomes to ensure standards are maintained. Senior examiners have reviewed papers to make sure the quality of work is appropriate to the grades awarded.”
The harder courses and the new 9 grade, which equates to the highest marks of the old A*, led to speculation from Ofqual and experts that just a handful or even no pupils nationally would receive a sweep of nine or more 9s. But those initial expectations proved to be misplaced as schools reported high-achieving pupils.
Brighton College, the independent school whose headmaster accused his private school peers of shying away from the new GCSEs, said 10 of its pupils achieved nine grade 9s, including four with 10 of the top grades and a remarkable performance by one pupil with 10 of new top grades and two A*s in unreformed exams including further maths.
Maths and English – compulsory subjects in year 11 – were the largest exam entries, with increases seen in the subjects that form the government’s preferred English baccalaureate suite, especially in biology and chemistry while history and geography also improved.
Another big change – in both Wales and England – has been the advent of a new combined science GCSE, which is awarded as a double-grade, replacing the old science, additional science and further additional science GCSEs.
The results will have been eagerly awaited by the families of nearly 700,000 year 11 pupils in England alone, with more than 5.5m exam entries in total.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, congratulated students on their results but said: “Removing most coursework and other non-exam assessment and just using end-of-course exams makes the exams extremely high stakes and is contributing to poor mental health among students.”
Nick Gibb, the minister for school standards in England, said: “Thanks to our reforms and the hard work of teachers, education standards are rising in our schools and pupils have shown their abilities by achieving excellent results today, with so many pupils meeting and exceeding the standards we expect.”
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents many secondary school headteachers, said students and teachers had “weathered the storm of an unprecedented year of upheaval”.
“We are concerned about the additional pressure this has placed on students and teachers and the impact on their wellbeing, and we are not clear why the government felt it necessary to ratchet up the pressure to such an extent and what this was intended to achieve,” Barton said.
In Wales, the impact of reforms was also apparent. The proportion of students getting an A or higher rose from 17.9% to 18.5%, primarily driven by boys’ performance as the gender gap in top marks narrowed. The proportion of boys receiving an A or above rose from 14.2% to 15.1%, while the increase for girls was 0.4% to 21.9%.
Kirsty Williams, the Welsh education secretary, applauded the increase in the number of pupils taking sciences: “Today marks a culture change for science in Wales. Entries are up by 50%, with more pupils gaining A*-C and more achieving the very top grades in biology, chemistry and physics. This shows the importance that both we and schools attach to this subject.”