Gender gap linked to girls 'being much more engaged' at early age
Sending your five-year-old daughter to a dance class may translate into impressive results in the Leaving Certificate 13 or 14 years later.
The better performance by female candidates in the exam can be traced back to when they are much younger and were more likely to engage in activities such as music, drama or dance classes.
The class of 2017 continued the familiar pattern of girls doing better than boys in the Leaving Certificate, according to a gender breakdown of results from the State Examinations Commission.
The girls have proportionately more top grades at higher level in all subjects, except maths, applied maths, chemistry, engineering, accounting, Japanese, and Polish. They are also less likely to "fail". The trends are broadly similar at ordinary level.
Leading education researcher Dr Emer Smyth said there was no one reason to explain the gender gap in exam achievement, but there were a number of pointers.
Dr Smyth, of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), cited her own research, published last year, that reading for pleasure and activities such as dancing boosted cognitive skills and enhanced attitudes to school.
The research was based on data about children aged nine and 13 from the 'Growing Up in Ireland' study, which also found that girls were much more likely to engage in such out of school learning activities.
Dr Smyth said while the study looked at the experiences of nine and 13 year olds, "it is there even at five", and made a difference in terms of a child's engagement with, and performance in, education.
An annual analysis of Leaving and Junior Cert candidature also shows girls tend to aim higher and are more likely to study at "honours" level.
Previous research done by Dr Smyth on the experiences of students progressing through the second-level education system in Ireland shows that from second year up, girls spend more time on homework than boys.
She said an "image perfection" thing goes on and girls will "do hard work and study and put themselves under enormous pressure to do well".
There is a raft of international research seeking to explain why girls "do better" than boys, and a study about a decade ago pointed to how the exam and assessment system tended to demand writing skills, such as narrative and descriptive, at which girls are generally good.
Other studies have found girls do better when coursework forms part of the assessment process, while boys, who are more likely to take risks, tend to shine in multiple choice question exams.
The "under-achievement" of male pupils is often attributed to "laddish culture" and the notion of boys being "too cool for school". Dr Smyth said behaviour had been identified as a factor in education performance, with boys more likely to get into situations where they are reprimanded, which can lead to disengagement. This tends to be more obvious in areas of disadvantage.
Recent UK research suggests that the gender differences in subject choice should be of greater concern than gender differences in exams, which don't really translate into long-term consequences, but subject choices do. This was among the concerns expressed this week after the Leaving Cert results were issued.
Commenting on the gender of the physics entrants, the chair of Institute of Physics Ireland, Dr Mark Lang, said uptake of the subject by girls in Ireland remained stubbornly low at school level, with only about a quarter of the Leaving Certificate cohort being female.
He said it represented "a significant loss of science capital to the country and, on an individual level, indicates that many women are not fulfilling their potential in this area".