Provisional A Level results 2013/14: Examining the Gender Gap

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The Department for Education (DfE) has recently published a statistical first release (SFR), revealing the overall achievements for level 3 students aged 16-18 at the end of advanced level study in 2014.[1]

One of the key headlines in the accompanying report is the decline in the percentage of A*/A grade passes (N.B. A* grade was only introduced in 2010). This decline was more pronounced for females than males (a 1.2% decrease over the last four years, compared to a 0.3% decrease). At the same time, there has been a narrowing of the gender gap and there is a possibility that these two factors are linked. At Learning Plus UK Data, we have used the data to examine the gender gap between A Level entries and attainment in order to identify the subjects where it is more or less prominent. The data examined cover A Level exams in all subjects between 1996 and 2014.


Entries

A Level entries remain consistently higher for females than males. This gender gap in entry rates has increased year-on-year from 27,820 in 1996 to 67,801 in 2014. However, whilst there is a large gap in entry rates overall, this appears to be accounted for by a few specific subjects. For example, English is particularly female dominated with an average of over 31,000 more females opting for the subject each year. Additionally, art and design, psychology and sociology have at least 10,000 more female entrants every year.

Conversely, STEM subjects attract a much greater number of male entrants. Over 5,000 more male students opt for economics each year, at least 10,000 more opt for mathematics and an average of over 15,000 more opt for physics. Interestingly, this tendency towards STEM subjects is reversed in biological sciences, where yearly, at least 6,000 more females have taken the subject.

A further point to note is the change in music entries. Up until 2003 this was a female dominated subject. However, from 2004 the trend has reversed with over 1,500 more male entrants most years since. This type of switch in popularity seems quite unusual across the data and in addition to music, can only be seen in chemistry, history, and other social studies. This is particularly well highlighted in our infographic, by looking at the ‘Number of entries over time’ line graph and filtering between the subjects.

In relation to academic outcomes, there is an interesting variation in languages. In terms of entries, female students have outweighed male students each year in French, German and Spanish with 5,300, 1,800 and 1,900 more entries on average, respectively. However, these three subjects are the only ones where males have outperformed females every year. Males have achieved a higher percentage of A*/A grades than females in French, German and Spanish, with 2.7%, 0.3% and 3.9% more on average, respectively.


A*/A grades

Although there have been a couple of small dips (a 0.1% decrease for males and females in 1997 and a 0.1% decrease for males in 2000) the percentage of A Level entries resulting in an A*/A grade has been increasing each year. This increase has led to a noticeable gender gap which was particularly prominent between 2002 and 2008 when over 2% more females achieved A*/A grades each year. This gap is clearly demonstrated by the ‘Percentage of grades A*/A over time’ graph in our infographic.

However, in 2012 this changed. Male A*/A grades showed a 0.3% drop followed by two years of stability, but no further increase. Female A*/A grades experienced a 0.2% drop followed by two successive years of 0.5% decreases. The gender gap is now at its most narrow for 15 years, with just 0.1% more females achieving A*/A grades than males.


What has changed in particular since 2011?

One case put forward by the DfE in their SFR is the increasing uptake of facilitating subjects, which include: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Geography, History, English Literature and Classical/Modern Languages.[2] These subjects have risen in popularity amongst females particularly.

However, as the table below shows, despite an obvious contrast between the percentages of students opting for facilitating subjects over other subjects, this doesn’t seem to relate to a decline in A*/A grade passes. On the contrary, students appear to fare better in facilitating subjects.

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Whilst there are some interesting changes taking place in A Level options and attainment, the data does not appear to offer any explanation as to the reasons behind these changes. Students do in fact seem to be choosing subjects which lead to higher levels of attainment, and the subjects where students fare less well are becoming increasingly unpopular. A factor which we have not examined is prior attainment, in particular average KS4 points. Perhaps this would give us some insight into these divergences.

So what factors are helping to close the gender gap? And will the A Level reform reverse the decline in A*/A grades?

We would be very interested to get your views on this topic. Join us on Twitter @learningplusuk, on our Post-16 Learning Forum or LinkedIn group to let us know what you think!

To help you monitor performance of males and females at your centre, our Post-16 LPUK Datadashboard includes Level 3 performance analysis by gender and other characteristics, making it easier for you to identify any areas of concern. Click here to access the demo and explore the Post-16 LPUK Datadashboard.

[1] DfE, SFR42 - A level and other level 3 results: 2013 to 2014 (provisional)

Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/a-level-and-other-level-3-results-2013-to-2014-provisional

[2] The ‘Classical/Modern Languages’ category includes 24 different languages. However the SFR only provides data for French, German, Spanish and ‘Other modern languages’; these are reported in our Big Numbers.