Different GCSE exams for different sexes?

The Guardian has reported that one of the country’s biggest exam boards is developing different GCSE courses for boys and girls or men and women.

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) is looking into creating a science GCSE with more coursework in it for females, and one which gave more weighting to exam marks for males. This idea has been debated at some length on the AQA blog for teachers and science specialists.

Studies suggest that girls perform better in coursework than boys, while boys do better in exams.

The courses in English, maths and science “could” be available from September next year. But there are a number of questions that would need addressing before that can happen.

Would a non-coursework version of the specification be open only to boys? This would be very unfair on those girls who felt it also offered them the best chance of higher grades. Such a restriction would, I think, be unjustifiable and possibly even illegal.

So any variant specifications will be open to all, but “targeted” at different groups. As coursework has always been hard to manage, mark and moderate fairly, and is becoming even more so with the introduction of controlled assessment, the fear is that, given the choice, very few schools would take the coursework option. Coursework would largely disappear.

This would fly in the face of decades of government education policy. Right now, every science GCSE must include controlled assessment and there are no exceptions even for distance learners and the home-educated. Will the government now bow to pressure and allow non-coursework Science GCSEs?

The situation is complicated by the fact that the new government has decided to allow IGCSEs to be taught in state schools. IGCSEs generally have coursework options but most candidates prefer the exam-only options. AQA does not have a range of IGCSE courses – they are only offered, at present, by AQA’s rivals, Edexcel and Cambridge. It is plain that AQA fears being left behind and wants to do within the GCSE system what their rivals are doing elsewhere.

Bill Alexander, AQA’s director of curriculum and assessment, told the Times Educational Supplement: “We could offer a route for boys that is very different to a route for girls.” But will the government agree to it?

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said it was “extremely dangerous” to get into gender stereotyping. “There are lots of boys who like the investigative element of coursework as well,” he said. This is true but it is also possible that AQA are using the gender theory as a convenient excuse to justify the introduction of non-coursework GCSEs.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says it is a “wild generalisation” that boys do better in exams, while girls perform better in coursework, but that it has “more than a grain of truth” to it.

At Oxford Open Learning, we welcome the introduction of non-coursework GCSEs because controlled assessment has made GCSEs impossible for most, if not all, the students we support. But there have been enough changes to the educational system in recent years and most of all we are looking for clarity and stability.

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