Sixties peak of female performance

April 21, 1995

Dr Goodhart is correct in identifying the increase in the female entry at Oxford and Cambridge as a factor in the decline of female academic performance since the early 1970s. Another factor is a decline in the efficiency of female selection, since today most interviews are conducted by male fellows, and not female as in the early 1970s.

However, the standard of the female entry from state schools at all universities - not just Oxford and Cambridge - measured by A levels has also declined. For example, in the five-year period 1989 to 1993, in the entry to the English and Welsh universities excluding Oxford and Cambridge, men scored higher average A-level marks than women in every subject except two, in which the marks were essentially equal.

This was not the case in the 1960s when in arts subjects women - and particularly women from state schools - outperformed the men.

In your editorial (THES, March 31), you mention " . . . the rapid improvement nationally in women's academic achievement, particularly in science and maths and also in subjects like history at A level as the proportion of girls attending single sex schools has declined".

In order to understand this statement, I have examined the record and find it to be correct providing performance today is compared with performance ten or so years ago. For example, in modern languages in 1985, 29.01 per cent of all girls entering A level obtained A or B compared to 33.36 per cent of boys - a ratio of 0.87; in 1993, the ratio was zero, a small female improvement. The same is true for other subjects: in maths the 1985 ratio was 0.90 which improved to 0.96 by 1993.

But the major growth in the comprehensive system occurred in the 1970s; in which case the comparison must be between 1993 and a date in the 1960s. For example, in the year 1967 in modern languages 28.2 per cent of the female entry obtained an A or B at A level compared to 22.4 per cent of the male entry, at ratio of 1.26. In 1967, the same ratio for maths was 1.07. To be specific, in 1960s A levels, the nation's girls outperformed boys in nearly every subject.

N. G. McCRUM

Hertford College

Oxford

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