High-flying female pupils in Scotland are less likely to go into higher education than high-flying males, despite being equally likely to apply, Edinburgh University researchers have found.
Teresa Tinklin and Linda Croxford of Edinburgh's Centre for Educational Sociology carried out a study for the Scottish Executive based on the Scottish School Leavers Surveys. The most recent data available for the research came from surveys of 1994 school leavers and 1996 pupils in the fourth year of secondary school.
The researchers found that 28 per cent of female leavers and 24 per cent of males had four or more high-grade Higher passes. The minimum higher education entrance requirement is generally three passes. Pupils from socially advantaged backgrounds were more likely to be high-fliers, but Ms Tinklin and Dr Croxford say young women from all social backgrounds did better than young men from similar backgrounds.
The majority of high-fliers went on to full-time study straight from school, but while 88 per cent of boys and 85 per cent of girls applied to degree courses, only 73 per cent of girls took up places, compared with 83 per cent of boys.
"One possible explanation for the difference in entry rates is that young women tended to apply for more over-subscribed courses, but we cannot test this using the data available," the report says.
In the fifth and sixth years, when pupils had greater freedom of subject choice, girls gained more passes in English, foreign languages and creative subjects, while boys gained more in science subjects and mathematics. Social class differences were more marked for female high-fliers than males, with middle-class girls even more likely to take English and other languages, while working-class girls preferred social and technological subjects.
Dr Croxford and Ms Tinklin are continuing research on gender differences for the Scottish Executive, reporting in January. There are concerns about boys underachieving compared with girls, but the researchers say underachievement can be a problem for both sexes.
Boys may not have kept up with the significant improvements made by girls in the past two decades, but school leavers with A levels or Highers in mathematics, generally boys, can expect higher average earnings than their peers.
"Whereas young men who leave school with low qualifications are more likely to enter training schemes and jobs, however unstable, young women who leave school with low qualifications are more likely to drop out of the labour market altogether and to start families," the report says.