The 20-year trend of girls beating boys in exams could soon be reversed after a move to drop coursework in maths GCSEs allowed boys to leapfrog their female classmates' results in just one year.
Coursework will be scrapped from nearly all GCSEs next year, but today'srecord-breaking results showed that when it was dropped from maths, boys surged ahead for the first time in more than a decade while girls got fewer of the top marks.
The remarkable increase of nearly two percentage points in the proportion of top grades awarded to boys for maths sparked a debate about whether girls and boys should be assessed differently after teachers claimed that girls thrive in coursework tests while their male classmates do better cramming for exams.
The GCSE results of more than 670,000 pupils in England and Wales this year showed that more than two thirds of exams were graded at least a C and one in five was an A or A*. There were record rises in entries for maths, physics, chemistry and biology but another drop in entries for languages and a dip in the proportion getting good grades in English.
The proportion of boys getting grades A* to C in maths rose from 55.8% to 57.6% while the rate for girls stayed the same at 56.8%. The number of girls getting an A* in maths dipped slightly. Overall, the gender gap remains across all subjects with an average of 24.4% of GCSEs sat by girls – nearly one in four – getting an A or A* compared with 18.7% sat by boys.
Coursework is being replaced in nearly all subjects with "controlled assessment", extended tasks sat in exam conditions. The decision to remove coursework was prompted by concerns about plagiarism but it now appears it will have a significant impact on the gender gap in education and could even end up disadvantaging girls.
Mike Cresswell, director general of the exam board AQA, presenting the GCSE results today, said: "This year the boys are doing better than the girls at GCSE maths. It's the first time that has been true since 1997. The obvious speculation is it reflects the removal of coursework from GCSE maths. It's well established that girls outperform boys at coursework."
Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education at the University of London, and an expert on assessment, said there was firm evidence that girls do better in coursework. "Girls' coursework marks tend to be higher than boys so removing coursework will disadvantage girls. The so-called 'soft' skills like planning your work, sticking to deadlines, conscientiousness, are important for coursework. Some schools allow kids to submit coursework and get comments and revise it. To take advantage of that you have to be organised."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "Twenty years ago we were told we had to work hard so that girls caught up with boys. I do think that next year, when coursework is removed from many other subjects, boys' achievement will catch up with girls.
"Girls work more consistently through two years – these are wild generalisations – and boys prefer to study hard before an exam," he said.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "The problem has been that in the 1960s and 1970s boys were getting 12-13% more O-level passes than girls and no one really talked about it. When girls started to do better there were Panorama programmes and inquiries and a national debate. There's a national panic if girls and women start to be successful. Girls have been more successful at GCSE and A-levels but that hasn't closed the gender pay gap. Even if they do better they don't get paid as much."
A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman warned against making any "broad-brush" judgments on the patterns. He said that boys results had been improving for some time, adding: "As a group, girls appear to do well at examinations and coursework assessment."
The UK's largest examination board has called for an end to coursework counting towards pupils' GCSE grades in England, labelling it as cumbersome, open to abuse and "disliked by many teachers and loathed in some subjects".
The report by the OCR exam board comes as the Department for Education and the exams regulator Ofqual mull proposals to revise GCSEs, including the role of coursework, known as "controlled assessment".
Mark Dawe, the board's chief executive, said: "OCR recognises that the way coursework is currently assessed in the classroom fails to give reliable results. It's time for a major rethink on coursework so that everyone can have full confidence in the exam system."
Michael Gove, the education secretary, said this year that internal assessment such as coursework "should be kept to a minimum and used only where there is a compelling case to do so", making grades dependent on a final examination at the end of two years' study.
Controlled assessment – work done in the classroom, supervised by teachers under exam conditions – was introduced in 2009. The amount of coursework currently used towards final grades for each subject varies, with up to 60% of marks in GCSE English coming from coursework, compared with 25% in science.
The OCR report says internally assessed coursework is vulnerable to being abused by schools. Although it stops short of accusing schools of cheating, the report makes reference to schools using coursework to "optimise students' grades", and "upward-tilted marking" caused by "potential leniency".
"[Teachers] are torn between needing to continually improve their exam results and yet also to be impartial assessors of their pupils' coursework," said Dawe.
Among the alternatives to teacher-led assessment, the report suggests exam boards conduct assessments through school visits, but notes that this would be "frighteningly expensive, and complex to organise".
Some educationalists argue that removing coursework could disproportionately hurt girls' results. For 25 years girls have outperformed boys in most subjects at GCSE level, while some research suggests boys tend to perform more confidently in exams alone.
In a separate submission to Ofqual, OCR said the regulator's plan to replace GCSE letter grades with a numerical grading system of 1 to 8 points would not show a clean break with past exams because it was too close to the old system.
"Where the old and new grades can be readily equated, there are huge pressures and disadvantages both for pupils on the old system and pupils who are exposed to the first five or so years of the new system," OCR wrote.
OCR also objected to Ofqual's statement that GCSE performance should be used to hold schools accountable. "Exam results are only one indicator by which a school should be held accountable, and not the only one. There are a wide range of factors such as teaching quality, access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, pastoral care, leadership which need to be accounted for, and focusing too heavily on examination results can have detrimental effects on the others," OCR said.
The Department for Education said: "We agree that unnecessary coursework undermines the reliability of assessment. That is why we want to cut back on coursework, modules and controlled assessment. These reforms will restore confidence in GCSEs and tackle grade inflation.
"We have asked Ofqual to review how we might limit coursework and controlled assessment. Ofqual's consultation ended this week."