Kate Kellner is a Primary Maths Adviser at Herts for Learning
Is it possible that we still have a gap in attainment between higher achieving boys and girls in primary mathematics? And, what should we do about it?
I am not the first to write on this topic. Many have gone before me, to lament the achievement of girls in mathematics. Studies over time, and across the world, have tried to fathom why there might be an achievement gap based on gender. Interestingly, the gap is not present across the whole world. It appears to be more prevalent in Anglo-Saxon areas including the UK and the USA. There is data to show that in Asian, Latin-American, Scandinavian countries and the Caribbean the reverse may be true and that this may have been the case for a while. Paul Ernest, in his paper ‘Questioning the gender problem in mathematics’ in the early 1990s said; “Such imbalances are widespread in the English speaking world and in some other developed countries. However a modern development in Latin and Latin-American countries and the Caribbean is that a higher proportion of women participate in mathematics and science studies and occupations, and in some such countries the women now outnumber the men in such occupations.”
But, currently, in the UK, boys are doing better than girls at the new ‘greater depth’ indicator for Key Stages 1 and 2 in mathematics. And this is not new: Boys previously did better at Level 3 in Key Stage 1, and Level 5 at Key Stage 2. Whereas, when you look at the ‘expected standard’ either the percentages are broadly equal or the girls do slightly better.
We know that this is not the case in every school or in every Year 2 or Year 6 class. Some groups of children, classes or schools, will buck the trend. But overall, there is enough data on a large scale to indicate that as a nation, and over time, our boys are performing better than the girls in the indicators of ‘greater depth’ or ‘higher attainment’. Why is this?
2016 results for Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs (National and Hertfordshire figures).
Achieving expected standard | Achieving greater depth | |||||
Boys | Girls | All | Boys | Girls | All | |
KS 1
National |
71.8 | 73.6 | 72.6 | 19.6 | 16.0 | 17.8 |
KS 1
Herts |
76.2 | 77.5 | 76.9 | 26.9 | 21.6 | 24.3 |
KS2
National |
69.8 | 69.6 | 69.7 | 18.2 | 14.9 | 16.6 |
KS2
Herts |
72.6 | 72.6 | 72.6 | 21.3 | 16.6 | 19.0 |
In our advisory team for Primary Mathematics at Herts for Learning, we are predominantly female (9 women and 1 man). We would all argue that there is no cognitive reason for this gap. It’s not that men’s brain’s work better with mathematical ideas. Surely nobody is arguing this to be the case, although I admit I’m no neuroscientist. So, what else could it be?
What about historical data?
You might question whether it’s the new style of assessment which came in during 2016, but the recent historical data from Key Stage 1 and 2 from 2014 and 2015 reflects a similar picture, with boys out-performing girls in the higher attainment indicators of Level 3 and Level 5 respectively. In fact the gap is slightly narrower in Key Stage 2 at ‘greater depth’ than it previously was for ‘Level 5’.
2015 results for Key Stage 2 (National and Hertfordshire figures).
Achieving Level 4 + | Achieving Level 5 + | |||||
Boys | Girls | All | Boys | Girls | All | |
KS2
National |
87.0 | 87.0 | 87.0 | 45.0 | 37.0 | 41.0 |
KS2
Herts |
89.0 | 88.0 | 89.0 | 52.0 | 41.0 | 47.0 |
2014 results for Key Stage 1 (National and Hertfordshire figures).
Achieving Level 2 + | Achieving Level 3 + | |||||
Boys | Girls | All | Boys | Girls | All | |
KS1
National |
91.0 | 93.0 | 92.0 | 26.0 | 22.0 | 24.0 |
KS 1
Herts |
92.0 | 95.0 | 94.0 | 34.0 | 28.0 | 31.0 |
So is it the way we teach?
As teachers, we are a highly reflective profession. We constantly question what we do, how we do it and why we do it.
However, many schools still test times tables against the clock and have other timed arithmetic challenges, some starting as young as Key Stage 1, showing that we value speed in maths. In fact we value speed in maths in a way that we don’t tend to value knowledge recall in any other subject. For example, where you still come across spelling test being carried out, these are not usually under the pressure of timed against the clock. My question is; why do we test times tables often against the clock, but not spellings? By doing this, do we value speed as equating to being better at maths? If so, who does this favour? And by doing this, do we send the message to whole classes of children that being good at maths is mostly about being fast?
My feeling is that this is a contributing factor to the gender gap, because of the impact it has on classrooms. We need to be encouraging the methodical thinkers, rather than putting them off through artificial time pressures and the anxiety that this can create. I think we may still be undermining the confidence of some pupils (many of them girls), who are just as capable with the maths, if given time and not comparing themselves to others. You can read a blog which mentions this here.
For a while now people have talked about ‘maths anxiety’; a very real feeling of anxiety that exists for some children specifically relating to maths. Are we making this worse with our timed testing and apparent favouring of speed recall? Is this more prevalent in our girls and is it linked to the time pressure they find themselves under?
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying children shouldn’t learn their times tables and to be able to recall them with confidence in the necessary circumstance. But is the timed testing necessary? Is it helping this particular problem we have?
I recently spoke with 2 groups of pupils from Year 5 in a Watford primary school. This is a school where I have seen solid pedagogical discussions between teachers about the way maths is taught. In my view and in OFSTED’s view; a good school.
The boys were clear: in maths, speed matters. They named boys in their class who are quick and confident as those being ‘best at maths’. No girls’ names were mentioned, until I probed them to think of other children. The girls gave the answer that speed mattered less, but then went on to name the same quick and confident boys in the class as being the ones ‘best at maths’. Again, no girls’ names came up on the list until I specifically asked.
Interestingly, it felt as though the girls knew what they ‘ought’ to say – “it’s not about being first, it’s about having a range of strategies to help you get to the answer”. But their view of themselves and their class was different. One girl said “If I don’t finish, I feel like I’m the only one… it makes me feel slow”. Another girl said of the class “The girls are really hard working, but they don’t call out.” The implication in the way she said it, was that this meant the boys were ‘better’.
A recent AERA Open paper ‘Have Gender Gaps in Maths Closed Achievement, Teacher Perceptions, and Learning Behaviours Across Two ECLS-K Cohorts’ (2016) based on a study in the USA, suggested “teachers rated the math skills of girls lower than those of similarly behaving and performing boys (Robinson-Cimpian et al., 2014b). These results indicated that teachers rated girls on par with similarly achieving boys only if they perceived those girls as working harder and behaving better than those boys. This pattern of differential teacher ratings did not occur in reading or with other underserved groups’.
As a teacher, this is hard to read: Do I rate girls less highly than boys, unless they work harder and behave better than their counterparts? Are we doing some of our girls a disservice by expecting more from them, before we accept that their achievement is on a par?
Simple next steps?
We need to question, as teachers, what do we really value in the classroom? Then we need to consider how to build up the self-belief and confidence of all those pupils.
If we could both remove the time pressures (which can induce unnecessary anxiety), and rate the children more equally, would these 2 steps help in some small way to even up the data?
What teaching styles might help to redress the balance? Possibly a ‘no hands up’ and ‘no calling out’ ethos, replaced with a teaching style which genuinely values the range of strategies to reach an answer, rather than the speed at which the answer was reached, fostering an ethos of exploration in mathematics.