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Expert calls for major inquiry into why boys continue to underperform in school

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

The Government should launch a major inquiry to understand the reasons why boys underperform at school compared to girls, it has been suggested.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said we do not have a “sound basis for tackling boys’ performance relative to girls”.

His comments come after girls extended their lead over boys in the top grades at GCSE and A-level earlier this month.

Students were awarded grades determined by their teachers this summer after exams were cancelled for the second year in a row, with pupils only assessed on what they have been taught during the pandemic.

In a blog, Prof Smithers said: “It could just be that girls are intrinsically smarter and, on the face of it, school and university results point in that direction.

“But I would like to think they are not and it is that boys are not fully developing their potential.

“If this is the case, it is an issue so serious as to demand a major inquiry. I would go as far as to suggest that Government should call a Royal Commission for the first time since 2000.”

His call comes after Mary Curnock Cook, the former head of Ucas, called for an “explanation” to eliminate the possibility of “systemic bias against boys”.

In a paper published on Monday, Ms Curnock Cook said she was “concerned to note differences in grade awards” between boys and girls this summer.

This year, the proportion of girls in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who achieved an A grade or higher at A-level was 46.9% – 4.8 percentage points higher than boys at 42.1%. Last year, girls led boys by 3.2 percentage points.

A-level maths female students also overtook their male counterparts for the first time this year in terms of A* grades achieved – with 29.1% of girls awarded the top grade, compared with 28.5% of boys.

Meanwhile, the proportion of female GCSE entries awarded 7/A or above this year was 33.4%, nine percentage points higher than male entries (24.4%). Last year, girls led boys by eight percentage points.

The head of one exam board recently suggested there is evidence that girls often perform better in continuous assessment, whereas boys tend to “pull it out of the bag” when they come to an exam.

Jill Duffy, chief executive of OCR, also highlighted recent reports which suggest the pandemic has affected boys’ mental health more than females.

In a blog on boys’ underperformance, Prof Smithers said: “The plethora of possible explanations could arise because it is a complex phenomenon, but more likely it is that we do not sufficiently understand what is going on.

“This leaves us without a sound basis for tackling boys’ performance relative to girls.

“Researchers will say we need more money for research and they are right, but that research is likely to be from a particular perspective and conclusions would be drawn within that framework.

“We really need a high-level inquiry to draw the different approaches together and tease out the most promising explanations. Something along the lines of the Dearing Inquiry into Higher Education of 1996 would do it.

“But the issue is so serious as to call for a Royal Commission, the first since the turn of the century.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This Government is focused on levelling up opportunity so that no young person is left behind – regardless of gender.”

The spokesperson said more funding was being pumped into schools, as well as increased investment in early years education and targeted support for disadvantaged children aged two to 19.

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