The gap between boys and girls in levels of attainment at both primary and secondary school phases is well documented and has been discussed extensively for the last two decades. Girls perform better than boys in English at primary and secondary schools; girls attain above boys in Mathematics at primary level, with boys attaining slightly above girls in Mathematics at the end of secondary school. This gap in attainment between boys and girls attracts media attention but is less significant than gaps engendered by wealth, ethnicity and special educational needs.

In the context of special needs within mainstream schools, girls are less likely to have statements for special needs at both primary and secondary school levels. There are also more boys identified within maintained schools at School Action and School Action Plus:

  • achieving level 4 or above (see below)
  • achieving grade C or above (see below)

The gap between boys and girls in standards at GCSE in particular has been researched and discussed for at least two decades. This section explores what is known about that gap and also looks at broader gender differences.

Achieving level 4 or above

This graph shows the variation between boys and girls at Key Stage 2.

The percentage of pupils achieving level 4 or above in the 2011 Key Stage 2 tests by subjects

Achieving grade C or above

This graph shows the variation between boys and girls at Key Stage 4 (GCSE examinations).

The percentage of pupils achieving grade C or above in the 2011 Key Stage 4 GCSE examinations

If this is the focus for your closing the gap work, find out more by listening to Denis Mongon and Christine Owen talking about this gap, read the article on gender and explore the additional resources available later in this section.

The gender gap

Professor Denis Mongon
The gender gap in achievement is relatively simple to explain. Overall girls tend to do better than boys in all the national tests and all the national attainment targets that we have for them, provided that they both have access to doing them. So at the end of Key Stage 2, girls have closed the historic gap on boys in maths so they're about the same, 80 per cent of them get level 4 but in English and in writing girls do perform a lot better than boys and that gap then persists into Key Stage 4, where if we look at the 5 A*s to C, including English and maths, girls, about 59 per cent of them will get that mark, for boys that's about 51 per cent so there's about an 8 per cent gap there.

Christine Owen – Headteacher, Bartley Green School
In the early days when this school was almost failing, everybody underachieved, everybody and so we had to work really hard with everybody to raise the standards, as the standards have risen and we've become more sophisticated in analysing who is and who is not achieving the same gaps that exist nationally of course come out in our pupils. In particular for us, it's FSM pupils who underachieve compared to non-FSM and in particular, the boys do less well than the girls but not always. At one point in our analysis for two or three years, our boys did better than our girls, free school meals, and that caused us to question in fact whether our girls were underachieving and we decided they were because far from congratulating ourselves on bucking the trend we had to be honest and say we're not doing as well with the girls and we needed to look at what we were doing there.
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Article: Gender


At each stage of formal assessment in schools, girls perform better than boys and have always tended to do so in public examinations taken by both. The overall gap in attainment between young men and women is narrower than the gaps across socio-economic groups and across ethnic groups. However, girls were – and arguably still are – directly or indirectly inhibited from taking part in the curricular experiences, public exams and further or higher education to which their male peers have had access. The attainment gap between boys and girls is therefore both simple and complex:

  • simple because it only requires the comparison of two variables, the educational outcomes for young men and the educational outcomes for young women
  • complex because the pattern of causes and consequences around those two variables is intricate, only partially explained and often contested

Although pass rates at the end of key stages are a major feature of the gender gap, this gap more than most highlights the need for awareness and analysis, tracking and responding to variable participation rates ahead of exams and differences in lifelines when the exam or test results are published.

This short piece summarises what is known about the gender gaps in attainment alongside some associated issues including:

  • developmental differences
  • differences in post-compulsory education
  • differences in behaviour and wellbeing

Differences between boys and girls in the primary years

The developmental gaps between boys and girls are apparent by the time they start school. Parents of five-year-old boys are more likely to have concerns about their speech development (17 per cent compared with 10 per cent for girls), and five-year-old boys are more likely to wet the bed occasionally (32 per cent compared with 20 per cent of girls) (Sullivan & Joshi, 2008). Five-year-old girls generally achieve higher cognitive scores and have fewer behaviour problems than boys (Jones & Schoon, 2008).

By the end of Key Stage 2, girls are more likely than boys to achieve Level 4 in English, reading and writing. There is little, if any, difference between the sexes in their attainment in mathematics or science. This diagram shows how these gaps, which have been persistent over the years, looked in 2010.

Percentage of pupils achieving Level 4 or above in KS2 tests by gender

Academic attainment at O-level/GCSE

This diagram shows the emergence of a gender gap in favour of girls coinciding with the introduction of GCSEs, which replaced O-levels and CSEs in 1988. This gap has remained just below 10 percentage points since the mid-1990s, more recently narrowing to 7.5 per cent in 2010.

Percentage of school leavers achieving five or more A-C grades at O-level or GCSE by gender

Further education

Girls are more likely to continue in education (84 per cent) than boys (76 per cent). Rates of unemployment or those not in education, employment or training (NEET) are similar between the sexes (6 per cent for females and 7 per cent for males). Young women leaving school with no qualifications are even more disadvantaged than their male peers (Bynner, Morphy & Parsons, 1997; Howieson & Ianelli, 2008; Rake, 2000). For those young women, NEET is linked to early childbearing, depression, dissatisfaction with life and a lack of feeling in control (Bynner & Parsons, 2002; DCSF, 2008).

There are notable gender trends in the popularity of some A-level subjects. English is the most popular entry for both sexes, although young women are almost twice as likely to choose it as young men. The same predominantly female ratio also applies to psychology, art and design, sociology and drama. Young men are more likely to choose mathematics, physics, economics and business studies (DCSF, 2010). Vocational qualifications are even more segregated by gender than academic qualifications. Two out of every five female vocational qualifications post-16 (40 per cent) are accounted for by health and social care programmes. The most popular vocational subjects for males are ICT and business (DCSF, 2008).

Behaviour and wellbeing

Educational attainment, employment and training are not the only variable outcomes between boys and girls (DfES, 2007; DCSF, 2009a):

  • Boys are much more likely than girls to be assessed as having special educational needs and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.

  • 79 per cent of permanent and 75 per cent of fixed-term exclusions in 2007–08 were boys.
  • Higher rates of authorised absence are reported for girls than for boys, but levels of unauthorised absence are similar between the sexes.
  • Bullying usually takes place within rather than between gender groups. Boys tend to use physical violence. Girls tend to use exclusion from friendship groups.

Explanations and strategies

The gender gap in educational attainment is an international phenomenon. In England it has been suggested that the extensive use of coursework within GCSE contributes to the gap because girls may be more diligent than boys. Research however suggests that coursework plays only a minimal role in the gender differential at GCSE (Elwood, 1995). John Patten (then secretary of state for education) created a convenient experiment when he introduced a substantial reduction in the proportion of coursework assessment in 1994. If coursework (and diligence) were the main factors, then the gender gap should have decreased substantially but that evidently did not happen.

There is some evidence that different forms of assessment lead to different outcomes (on average). Boys do relatively well in multiple-choice tests, while girls do relatively well with longer written responses (Gipps & Murphy, 1994). However, it is far from proven that the GCSE examinations (so not the coursework alone) were or are advantageous for girls. At the end of KS2, regular national assessment has made the gender gap between 11 year olds more visible. The national literacy and national numeracy strategies did have a differential effect there. The literacy hour has had a stronger impact on boys, while the numeracy hour has had a stronger impact on girls, and so reduced some gender gaps (Machin & McNally, 2005).

Single-sex schools tended to benefit girls more than boys so there is no reason to suppose that reversing their decline would reduce the gender gap in attainment (Sullivan, Joshi & Leonard, 2009). However some studies have found that young people at single-sex schools take less sex-stereotyped subject options than those at co-educational schools (Mael, Alonso, Gibson, Rogers & Smith, 2005).

Several studies have assessed single-sex classes in co-educational schools. One research review found inconclusive results and argued that much depends how and why single-sex classes are introduced (Younger & Warrington, 2006). Where single-sex classes are introduced with the aim of raising boys' achievement, girls may simply be given less attention and fewer resources.

Teaching styles are sometimes said to work better with one or other sex but the research evidence is at best ambiguous. Pedagogy that helps to raise boys’ attainment also works for girls, suggesting that different teaching styles need to be used and that addressing the disruptive behaviour of some boys and laddish peer-group norms is important for the engagement of the whole year group. It may even be that some boy-friendly strategies are detrimental to boys' learning, and encourage the stereotypical consequences that contribute to underachievement (Francis, 2010; DCSF, 2009b).

The claim is sometimes made that boys need male teachers as role models and that boys' underachievement is because schools have been feminised in such a way that they are not conducive to boys' learning. Consequently, the then Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) invested in promoting the recruitment of men. Empirical research shows that boys' academic attainment is not affected by the sex of their teachers, and that their attitudes are more positive with female teachers than with male teachers (Carrington, Tymms & Merrell, 2008).

questions & activities

Personal reflection

Consider the following questions.


  • 01.
    Have the departments, key stages or curriculum areas that you lead spent sufficient time and resources addressing gaps relating to gender? How have they achieved this?
  • 02.
    Before you began this module did you have a clear view of which gender group in your area of responsibility was achieving at levels below the rest of the school?
  • 03.
    Were you surprised by the results produced by the analysis tool relating to gaps between boys and girls within your area?
  • 04.
    What steps do you as a leader need to take to ensure that this issue becomes a high priority for the area that you lead and possibly the school as a whole?


  • Carrington, B, Tymms, P & Merrell, C, 2008, 'Role models, school improvement and the 'gender gap' - do men bring out the best in boys and women the best in girls?', British Educational Research Journal, 34(3), pp315-327