University gender gap can be traced back to the age of 13

As early as Year 9, girls are much more likely to think a degree is important, Oxford University study finds

Differences between boys’ and girls’ views on the importance of going to university are evident as early as 13 years of age, new research shows.

A University of Oxford study reveals that the gender gap in university admissions has its roots as far back as Year 9, when girls are “significantly” more likely to view going on to higher education as being important.

In this age group, 64.9 per cent of girls thought it very important to go to university, compared with just 57.6 per cent of boys, according to researchers.

Professor Kathy Sylva, co-author of the report Believing in Better, published today by the Sutton Trust social mobility charity, said higher aspirations among girls “may be linked to their greater A-level success and [success in] gaining admission to university”.

But the study also shows that girls were “significantly” less likely than boys to believe in their own academic ability, particularly in maths. This is despite the fact that girls consistently outperform boys academically in their GCSE results. The report suggests that, “as a group, girls may be underestimating their academic ability”.

Louise Archer, professor of sociology of education at King’s College, London, who is an expert in gender in compulsory education, said that the disparity in attitudes towards university could partly be explained by girls having a more “realistic” take on their prospects after school.

“Certainly with the work that we have undertaken, boys who do not plan on going to university, some of them have slightly unrealistic expectations that they will be able to leave school at 16 and walk into work or an apprenticeship,” Professor Archer said. “The labour market is changing and girls are more realistic in that sense. It’s maybe that boys are not ready to think that far ahead.”

The academic added that, despite the research findings, she believed that the vast majority of middle-class boys would expect to go on to university. “It’s not as though women are more concentrated in higher-status careers, or that degree-level physics is overflowing with women undergraduates,” she said.

The Oxford study shows that 61 per cent of Year 9 pupils surveyed thought it was very important to get a degree, compared with only 13 per cent who said it was of little or very little importance.

‘Feminising education’

The findings come just weeks after the head of the universities admissions service Ucas suggested that boys were shunning university because of the dominance of women in teaching, which was feminising education.

According to Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook, girls born this year are 75 per cent more likely to go to university than boys. The gender gap at university will soon eclipse the gap between rich and poor, she added.

Today’s report draws on data from more than 3,000 young people who have been tracked through school since the age of 3 through the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) project.

It reveals strong links between students’ self-belief and aspirations and their academic achievements. The study shows that 15- and 16-year-olds with the same GCSE results were twice as likely to study three A levels if they believed that going on to university was a viable option for them, regardless of their social background.

Belief in their own academic ability, as well as high aspirations, plays a “significant” part in students’ A-level outcomes “over and beyond the important influence of background”, the report adds.

Professor Pam Sammons, lead author of Believing in Better, said: “These findings point to the practical importance for schools and teachers of promoting self-belief and attainment as mutually reinforcing outcomes.”

Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust, said the study shows the importance of raising aspirations and self-belief among poorer students, “particularly boys”.

This is an article from the 3 June edition of TES. This week’s TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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