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Gender and student achievement in English schools

Machin, Stephen and McNally, Sandra (2006) Gender and student achievement in English schools. . Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.

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In the UK, there is a marked gender gap in the educational attainment of boys and girls. At the end of compulsory education, 10 per cent fewer boys achieve 5 or more good GCSEs. This gap is by no means confined to GCSE. It is evident at all Key Stages. Furthermore, some indicators suggest that the gap has widened over time. In this paper, we document the evolution of the gender gap at various stages of compulsory education in England. We consider the importance of some possible explanations for the gender gap – in particular, factors that may explain the observed changes over time. Analysis of this issue is important in the context of research on the gender wage gap. However, it also raises policy-relevant issues in relation to whether changes in the school system can effect a change in the gender gap in educational achievement. We find that it is in secondary school, rather than primary school, where the gender gap has widened most noticeably over time. Controlling for attainment at the end of primary school makes very little difference to the measured gender gap at age 16. We consider the potential role of school based factors: school inputs; teaching practice; and the examination system. We show that the average gender differential cannot be explained by factors that vary across schools (i.e. it cannot be attributed to heterogeneity across schools in how they use inputs). However, this does not mean that teachers cannot influence the gender gap in attainment. We show that the introduction of the ‘literacy hour’ and ‘numeracy hour’ in primary schools made a difference to the gender gap in English and Maths respectively at Key Stage 2. However, these strategies are too recent to have made an impact on the gender gap observed in secondary school. The timing of the emergence of the gender gap in secondary school coincides with the change in examination system from O-levels to GCSEs. We argue that the importance of coursework in the GCSE examination is likely to be a key explanation for the emergence of the gender gap at age 16. Another very important explanation may be a gender differential in skills that are taught and tested in different types of system (as well as the mode of assessment). We also consider the potential role of social and economic changes that would influence the relative achievement of boys and girls at age 16. However, the most compelling explanation to explain the specific timing of the gender gap at this age in the England comes from the change in examination system. Taken together with the evidence on the literacy and numeracy strategies, this shows that education policy can most definitely have an impact on the gender gap in achievement, whether this is intended or not.

Item Type: Monograph (Discussion Paper)
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2006 Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally
Divisions: Centre for Economic Performance
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
Date Deposited: 06 May 2008 16:45
Last Modified: 16 May 2024 11:41

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