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Gender divide over A-level subjects

A huge gender divide in the A-levels chosen by sixth-formers is likely to continue this year as girls continue to shun "masculine" subjects like physics, it is suggested.

Despite a number of schemes aimed at encouraging young women to take the science after age 16, there has been little impact on take-up so far, headteachers and academics said.

And according to one prediction, boys will again score more top grades in this summer's results, as they tend to opt for courses that have clear right and wrong answers like maths.

Hundreds of thousands of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will receive their A-level grades tomorrow, allowing them to make vital decisions about their future, such as heading off to university, starting a training courses or heading off to work.

Last year, just over one in four entries (26.3%) scored an A* or A, down 0.3% on the year before. The fall was believed to be the second biggest drop in the history of the qualifications.

A* - the very top grade - also dipped last summer, with 7.6% of exams scoring the mark, compared with 7.9% in 2012, while the overall A*-E pass rate rose by 0.1%. to 98.1%.

The national picture also showed that boys pulled further ahead in the highest grades in 2013, with with 8% of boys' entries attaining an A* compared with 7.4% of girls. In 2012 the gap between the sexes was just 0.1%, with young men doing better.

Girls were still slightly ahead in A*-A grades combined last year, but their results dropped half a percentage point to narrow the gulf between the genders. They also continued to do better in terms of A*-C grades.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said that a "big gap" opened up between the sexes following the move to make A-levels modular in the early 2000s, but this has been getting smaller.

"I don't know if that's schools putting more effort into getting boys to do better to boost the school's overall performance results," he said.

"Boys are ahead in terms of A* and that's because the boys tend to be concentrated in those subjects where there are right answers and therefore a lot of A* and A grades, like maths and physics.

"Boys are likely to continue to be ahead at A*."

Prof Smithers said there was unlikely to be much change in entry patterns this year.

"The reluctance of girls to study physics has been a matter of concern for about 50 years," he said. "There has been a number of schemes to encourage them to look seriously at the subject and find out if they're good at it and like it and none of them have really come to anything.

"The proportion taking A-level physics is still around 80% for boys.

"There's something deep seated there, and we do not know whether it's in culture or in nature, but it's hard to change."

He added: "In terms of entries, there's so much out there to urge girls to look seriously at this subject, that it's not likely to get worse, but I don't think it will get much better.."

Last summer's national results showed huge gender differences in pupils' subject choices and exam official said that this gulf had grown, sparking concerns from headteachers and education experts.

Three quarters of psychology exams and seven in 10 English A-levels taken last year were sat by girls, whilst four in every five entries for physics were for boys as well as 60.7% of maths exams.

Natasha Plaister, a project coordinator at the Institute of Physics (IoP), said that the number of girls doing an A-level in the science had been low for some time.

"I probably wouldn't expect to see a significant difference this year because most of the initiatives that have been tried haven't made a very big difference to the overall statistics."

The IoP is running a new project working with the Government to improve the gender balance in physics, she said, working with students, teachers and schools over the next two years, which they hope will boost the numbers of girls taking the subject.

Ms Plaister said that part of the project is to look at the culture of schools generally to encourage girls to think about studying maths.

She added that there maybe a perception that physics "is not for girls".

The Department for Education (DfE) has launched a drive to improve take-up of science and maths-based subjects, especially among girls.

Earlier this year, former education minister Elizabeth Truss warned that England is still suffering from ''science deserts'' with too few youngsters, especially girls, studying the subject at A-level.

Jo Heywood, head of private Heathfield School in Ascot said there was a question about why young women are not excited about subjects like physics and argued that there should be more female scientists in the mainstream media to show young women how interesting science can be.

She suggested that subjects like English are often seen by young women "to be more female".

Girls' schools like Heathfield are bucking the trend, Ms Heywood said, with high numbers of youngsters studying science and maths at A-level and beyond


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