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A-Level results: Girls cream of crop once again in Northern Ireland exams

Despite province being top of class in UK, concerns rise over widening gender gap

By Victoria Leonard

Girls in Northern Ireland are continuing to outperform boys in the top A-level marks and the gap is widening across all grades, according to new figures.

Statistics released yesterday by the Joint Council for Qualifications CIC (JCQ CIC) showed a "continued strong performance from Northern Ireland students," and attributed the gender performance gap to "an increase in outcomes by females and a decrease in outcomes by males across all grades."

There were 30,684 A-level entries this year, a drop of over 1,000 from 2016.

Northern Ireland was the best-performing region of the UK at A-level, with 98.3% of students achieving A*-E grades, an increase of 0.1% on 2016.

There was an overall increase in performance across all grades, with 8.1% of pupils clinching the A* grade, a rise of 0.4%.

In addition, 30.4% of students achieved a top A* or A grade, up by 0.9% on last year.

At the top end of the scale, girls are outperforming their male classmates by 1.5% at the A* grade and by 6.5% at the A*-A grade.

This year, girls boosted their A* achievements by 0.9 percentage points to 8.7%, while they also clinched 33.3% of A*- A grades, an increase of 2% on 2016. In contrast, boys' attainment at the A* grade declined by 0.3% to 7.2%, and outcomes at the A*-A grade fell by 0.4% to 26.8%.

CCEA chief executive Justin Edwards called the widening gender performance gap in the province "a concern" which warranted "further study."

He said: "I wish to congratulate each student receiving their results and commend them for all their hard work. I also wish to recognise the dedication and support provided by Northern Ireland's teachers, who have had a key role in the success and the 5,000 examiner and moderators for their continued support.

"Today's results present a good picture for Northern Ireland, with a stable performance across all grades.

"As with any results, there are some things worth further study, such as the widening performance gap between males and females. While we must recognise and celebrate the achievements of female students, a widening of the gender gap is a concern."

While maths continues to be the most popular A-level subject in Northern Ireland, with one in 10 students opting for the discipline, the number of pupils taking STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) decreased by 0.6% to 39.8%.

Former Education Minister Peter Weir claimed that more needed to be done for male pupils from Protestant, working-class backgrounds.

He said: "There are areas that still need to improve. The gaps on gender and on socio-economic grounds, despite improvement in recent years on the latter, are still concerning, with particular attention still needed on male pupils from a Protestant working-class background.

"We need however continued focused interventions on early years, rather than an education revolution that would simply wreck our education system and with it diminish the life chances of our young people."

At AS-level there were 41,961 entries, with 27.7% attaining an A grade - a rise of 0.4%.

While females also continued to outperform males at this level, the gender gap narrowed to 4.1% at grade A.

NUS-USI president-elect Olivia Potter-Hughes urged pupils to seek careers guidance, and to remember that "there are always positive options available no matter what grades they have received."

She added: "When students think they cannot follow their dreams because they haven't received the grades they needed, there are always options available like apprenticeships or further education, which could be a better option for them."

The DUP's parliamentary education spokesperson Sammy Wilson, who is a former economics teacher and chief examiner, said that the gender performance gap was a "perpetual problem".

"When boys look at people who are successful it's usually racing drivers or football players, not a scientist or a Nobel Prize winner. I think there should be more male role models in education such as male primary school teachers," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"There have been a lot of studies done on educational underachievement in Protestant boys, and the reasons are complex.

"We have got to learn to accept that there is as much dignity in a youngster leaving school at 16 and making a contribution to society as a plumber, mechanic or construction worker as getting a PhD at university."

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