Girls outperform boys in North A-level exams

Examinations body says widening gender gap is a concern and will be investigated

Girls outperformed boys across the spectrum of grades in the North this year. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire

Girls outperformed boys across the spectrum of grades in the North this year. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire


Northern Ireland’s examination board is to investigate why girls are outperforming boys in the A-level exams.

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) said the three key results themes were Northern students overall performed well, females widened the gap with males at A* and A grades, and maths was again the most popular subject.

Pupils in the North generally study three or four A-Level subjects, which are allocated grades from A* to E; these are then used for entry to university. An A* grade would be the same as a H1 in the Leaving Cert.

Traditional subjects remained popular, but there was a noticeable growth in pupils choosing to study computing, further maths and digital technology.

Gender gap

Females outperformed males across the spectrum of grades this year. There was a 1.5 point gap at A* (7.2 per cent male, 8.7 per cent female); a 6.5 point gap at grades A* to A (26.8 per cent male, 33.3 per cent female) and a 0.7 point gap at grades A* to E (97.9 per cent male, 98.6 per cent female)

CCEA chief executive Justin Edwards said and warranted further study in coming months.

Mr Edwards said the CCEA was pleased that Northern Ireland candidates results remained “strong and stable” as there has been a number of reforms within the A-Level system recently but added his team has an eye on the widening gender gap.

“Historically the gender gap was wide because girls’ outcomes had risen faster than boys’ outcomes,” he said. “Here we have for the first year boys’ outcomes decreasing, albeit small, and girls’ outcomes increasing well and strong.

“We need to keep an eye on that . . . and need to do further work around further understanding of what is going on around that as there may be wider questions.”

Maths was the most popular A-level subject, accounting for one in 10 entries, followed by biology, history, religious studies and English literature. The top five has remained the same since 2010.

Popular subjects

This year the five most popular subjects for boys were maths (12.9 per cent), history (7.8 per cent), biology (7.7 per cent), physics (6.8 per cent) and information and communications technology (6.7 per cent).

The five most popular subjects for girls were biology (10.8 per cent), religious studies (9 per cent), English literature (8.8 percent), maths (8.1 per cent) and history (6.4 per cent).

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) entries decreased to 39.2 per cent of all A-Level entries, down from 39.8 per cent in 2016.

Mr Edwards said it was “reassuring to see further growth in entries to Further Mathematics, Computing and Software Systems Development at A-Level”.

The overall A*-E pass rate increased by 0.1 percentage points on last year to 98.3 per cent.

There were 30,684 entries this year (3.6 per cent or 1,144 fewer than in 2016, in line with a reduction in the school population) resulting in pass grades A*-E.

There was an rise in performance across all grades, with the proportion receiving an A* grade increasing by 0.4 percentage points to 8.1 per cent.

The percentage of entries achieving A* or A grades increased by 0.9 points to 30.4 per cent, in line with results in 2012 and 2013.

Northern Ireland pupils outperformed counterparts in England and Wales at every grade except A*.