University gender gap emerging at age 13, Oxford study finds

Research for Sutton Trust finds girls in Year 9 are more likely than boys to think getting a degree is important

June 3, 2016
Girls and boys signs

The roots of the growing gender gap in university admissions are already evident by the age of 13, according to a University of Oxford study.

Research conducted for the Sutton Trust found that girls in Year 9 were significantly more likely to perceive getting a university degree as being important than their male classmates.

In this age group, 64.9 per cent of girls felt that getting a degree was very important, compared with 57.6 per cent of boys.

Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology at Oxford and a co-author of the report, said that girls’ higher aspirations “may be linked to their greater A-level success and gaining admission to university”.

Drawing on a longitudinal study of about 2,700 schoolchildren in England, the report found that a significant gap in aspirations remained at Year 11, when 59 per cent of girls felt that getting a degree was very important, compared with only 53.1 per cent of boys.

The researchers found that more than half of all students who thought it was very important to get a degree went on to take three or more A levels – likely to be a key requirement for access to university – compared with only a third of those who thought it was fairly important and 11 per cent of those who felt it was not very important.

The research comes amid growing concern about the under-representation of young men at undergraduate level. Across the UK, 18-year-old women are 35 per cent more likely to enter higher education than their male classmates and, if current trends continue, girls born this year will be 75 per cent more likely to enrol.

Lead author Pam Sammons, a professorial senior research fellow in Oxford’s department of education, said: “Our research shows that students’ belief in themselves and their aspirations are shaped by their background. However, positive beliefs and high aspirations play an additional and significant role in predicting better A-level outcomes.

“These findings point to the practical importance for schools and teachers of promoting both self-belief and attainment as mutually reinforcing outcomes.”

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