Why do girls outdo boys at school and college?

GIrls reading
Girls tend to read more than boys
Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels

Throughout the country girls are outperforming boys at every stage in the educational system from early years Sats, GCSEs, A-levels, university admissions and degree classifications. In the North of England they are more likely to get three top A-level passes. This year more women have been accepted for university than men. Six out of 10 graduates tod ay are women. In 1979 seven out of ten graduates were men!

Are girls ‘brighter’ than boys?

Why do females do better than males at school or college? Are girls ‘brighter’ than boys? Educationalists put this down to a combination of external (outside school) and internal factors (inside school).

One factor has been the impact of feminist ideas and the role of the women’s movement. The advent of ‘second-wave feminism’ in the seventies led to success in improving the legal rights of women such as the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act 1975. This boosted the expectations and self-esteem of young women. They have also challenged the traditional stereotypes of women’s roles as carers. For sociologists like Sue Sharpe, more women in the third decade of the 21st century look beyond the 1960s role of ‘housewife’ and aspire to higher education, careers and autonomy.

In the last two decades there has been a decline in the number of what were traditionally regarded as ‘men’s jobs’, especially in semi-skilled and unskilled manual work, while there’s been a sharp increase in employment opportunities for women in the service sector.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

For other social scientists, a greater emphasis on equality, diversity and inclusion in the classroom has had an impact in enabling girls to fulfil their potential. Policies such as monitoring learning materials for gender bias to help schools meet their needs and aspirations as well as diversity in the curriculum have contributed to their success. Likewise most schools and colleges promote ‘girl-friendliness’, not only in male-dominated subjects but across the whole range of experience of girls within the system.

Campaigns such as WISE (Women into Science and engineering) have aimed to inspire girls and attract them into studying and following careers into male-dominated STEM subjects. Teachers today are much more sensitive about avoiding gender stereotyping in the classroom.

Hard work

Research by Dr Jake Anders and Jennie Golding suggest that girls work harder than boys in school. They generally put more effort into their work; they spend more time on completing homework promptly and they take more care with the way their work is presented. Furthermore they are better organised. They are more likely to have a ring-binder for each subject than boys. For Golding the improved performance at top grades by girls is partly attributable to the replacement of formal external exams with internal teacher assessment.

Teacher expectations

Other studies have suggested that teachers have higher expectations of girls leading to a ”self-fulfilling prophecy” of educational success. Girls are more cooperative and better behaved at school, and they generally care more than boys about the opinions of their teachers. As a result teachers have greater expectations of them, and young women gain from a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.


Educational research notes that girls tend to read more than boys. They talk about their homework. This develops the language and reasoning skills which gives them an advantage at school. Others have noted that girls mature earlier than boys. By the age of 16, it’s estimated by psychologists that girls are more mature than boys by two years. Put bluntly, this mean that girls are more likely to see formal assessment in a more responsible way, and recognise its seriousness and significance of the educational and occupational pathways that lie ahead of them.

The central challenge today facing policy-makers is meeting the needs of the ”forgotten third” – those girls and boys from disadvantaged backgrounds who didn’t leave school with a GCSE pass or a BTEC qualification.

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