More girls than boys at the highest ability levels

16 December 2011
More girls than boys at the highest ability levels

There are more girls than boys in the top 10 per cent of the ability range at age 5, a new Millennium Cohort Study analysis has found.

Although girls now generally outshine boys at school it is often argued that there are more males than females at the very top of the ability range. However, new research from the Institute of Education, University of London, suggests that boys may have lost their lead here too – at least in the infant school.

A study of almost 8,400 five-year-olds in England shows that the top 10 per cent of girls achieved higher scores than their male equivalents in a wide range of tests and teacher assessments.

The findings appear to challenge the views of academics such as Dr Helena Cronin, of the London School of Economics, who contends that there are more males than females at both ends of the ability spectrum. “More dumbbells but more Nobels,” is the phrase she coined to describe this phenomenon.

The new IOE study by Dr Kirstine Hansen and Dr Elizabeth Jones looked at how boys and girls being tracked by the Millennium Cohort Study had performed in a series of vocabulary, picture similarities and pattern completion tests. These assessments measured verbal and non-verbal reasoning and visual/spatial abilities.

Girls’ average score was higher than boys’ in each of the ethnic groups the researchers studied – white, black, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi. However, the researchers found that the size of the gender gap differed by ethnicity. Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black girls were furthest ahead of boys from their own ethnic background at age 5 while the gap between white and Indian boys and girls was much narrower.

In general, there were more girls than boys among the top 10 per cent of pupils and more boys than girls in the bottom 10 per cent. But again there were interesting ethnic differences in this cohort of children born in 2000/1.

There were, for example, slightly more girls than boys among the bottom 10 per cent of Indian children (the girl-boy ratio was 1:0.9). The equivalent figures for the other ethnic groups were: white pupils (1 girl in the lowest band for every 1.6 boys), Pakistani and Bangladeshi (1:1.4) and black (1:3.5).

Boys also slightly outnumbered girls among the top 10 per cent of black children (1 girl for every 1.3 boys). But the highest band of Indian children contained more girls than boys (the girl-boy ratio was 1:0.6), as did the top 10 per cent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils (1:0.7). Among white children there was a more equal gender split but again there were marginally more girls than boys in the top group (1:0.9).

The researchers also looked at the Foundation Stage Profile scores the children were given by class teachers in their first year of school. This profile assesses six areas of learning: personal, social and emotional development; communication, language and literacy; mathematical development; knowledge and understanding of the world; creative development; and physical development.

Hansen and Jones anticipated that the gender gaps in favour of girls in these assessments would be even greater than in the Millennium Cohort Study tests. Research has shown that girls tend to do better than boys on teacher-rated continuous assessments. The researchers were also interested to see whether teachers’ perception of pupils' ability might be influenced by children’s ethnicity.

They found that for most ethnic groups -- except Pakistani and Bangladeshi children — the gender gap in favour of girls was indeed greater for the teacher assessments than in the Millennium Cohort Study tests. They also established that the gender gap in teacher-assessed scores was very similar across all ethnic groups.

Teachers placed more boys in the bottom 10 per cent and assigned more girls to the top ability band. The only exceptions were black boys, who again slightly outnumbered black girls in the highest ability group.

“Our study indicates that girls do tend to do better on continuous assessment than boys or that teachers react to girls more favourably,” Hansen and Jones say. “It was also interesting to find that the gender gaps are highly similar across ethnic groups for the Foundation Stage Profile. This suggests that teachers' views of boys and girls are not differentially affected by children's ethnicity.”

The boys that schools should probably be most concerned about are black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, the researchers add. “However, for black boys, especially, the story is not entirely one of under-performance,” they say. “They were also over-represented at the top of the attainment range amongst all black children.”


“Ethnicity and gender gaps in early childhood”, by Kirstine Hansen and Elizabeth M. Jones, is published in the December issue of the British Educational Research Journal Vol. 37, No.6.