Boys, girls and A-level results: Are we asking the right questions?

A-level results are out and for the first time since the A* was introduced, a higher percentage of boys than girls have been awarded the top grade. Way-hey! Bring on the photos of uncommonly attractive boys whooping in celebration! Yeah! Ahem. On a more serious note, I am relieved to note that the natural order of things has finally been restored. At long last it would appear that examiners are asking the right questions and getting the correct results.

Obviously it’s not all good news.  If I were a men’s rights activist, I’d be seriously pissed off. The ‘underperformance’ of boys in exams has long been offered as irrefutable evidence of the mythical pendulum having swung too far. Has it now swung back? Or have our boys simply overcome impossible odds in what’s now become an aggressively matriarchal society? Who knows? One thing’s for sure, there’d be no point in trying to claim that it’s now the girls who are disadvantaged. Throughout the years of male underachievement, one thing has remained a constant: the belief that men are nevertheless cleverer than women. It’s hardly going to change now.

I did my A-levels nineteen years ago. I could add “back when they were worth something”, but on the very day I got the results my dad commented that he’d done his “back when they were worth something”. They’ve never been “worth something”, have they? Apart from for getting into universities and getting jobs and whatnot (they’ll get you that, but older people will still tell you that you’re useless). Anyhow, when I did mine, and in the years that followed, I’ve seen many arguments proposed as to why girls outperform boys:

  1. exams are too easy and don’t permit a sizable minority of ultra-high-achieving male geniuses to stand out
  2. exams are boring and only plodding, dull, unimaginative girls stay the course, while boys are distracted by their own amazing thoughts and ideas
  3. the whole school system is “feminised” so boys have no proper male role models and can’t possibly be expected to respect female teachers
  4. the exam structure plays to “female” skills – such as working hard and revising – when it should be playing more to “male” skills – such as being earth-shatteringly inspired on the spur of the moment
  5. there are too many questions about periods and babies

Okay, I made up that last one. But the others are all genuine justifications, and come together to form one basic message: girls are better at exams but boys, who have higher IQs, are more intelligent.

However – and it’s a big “however” – last month it was announced that for the first time ever, women are now getting higher scores than men in IQ tests. This has led to lots of celebratory reporting, praising female intelligence and – no, hang on, it has led to an article in the Mail explaining why really intelligent women should be “spending more time in the home”. Oh well. Still, it means the rules have now changed, especially after today. What we now have to say is: girls have higher IQs but boys, who are better at exams, are more intelligent. Got that?

This is of course the point at which anyone who’s still reading this will ask me why I’m even bothered. Most young people won’t get any A*s. It’s an extremely narrow, elitist means of defining worth and potential. But I think the way in which we use exam results to reinforce gender stereotypes and expectations – regardless of what the results actually are – has far broader implications. I’m wondering what happens now, given that the “poor old boys” narrative is getting undermined. Can we really start asking the right questions about qualifications – about class, privilege and, most importantly, about the knowledge and skills we value and impart? Or do we just keep going round in circles, shoehorning whatever data we have to fit with the stereotypes we love the most? I’ve no idea where all this will lead, but I do know one thing – headlines screaming “boys beat girls” aren’t telling us the half of it.


One thought on “Boys, girls and A-level results: Are we asking the right questions?

  1. Excellent post as usual. However that Daily Fail article you linked to is so stunningly lacking in critical analysis that it has to have been written by a man 😉

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