Do the Media Report our Exams Correctly?


August in the UK doesn’t just mean a month of school holidays for many school and college pupils; for those who have sat their GCSE, A level, Standards, Highers, BTEC and equivalent exams, it brings to an end a long wait to see if those exams have been passed, and if so, how well.

After the A level results were released in England and Wales this year it was widely reported that, for the first time in many years, boys had fractionally higher grade marks than girls. A number of reasons have been put forward for what seems to be perceived as a sea-change, including the structure of this year’s exams. However, this may not necessarily be true. For instance, The Guardian also quotes a research group called Education Datalab which comments: “Their [boys] performance has improved relative to girls’ this year, but this might have been as much to do with the academic ability of the boys and girls who chose these subjects this year as it is to the changes to A level structure.”

In other words, the differences between boys and girls grades can depend on so many different factors that stating that boys are cleverer than girls this year, or vice versa, is a bold statement. There are so many variables to take into consideration; geographical differences, the subjects chosen (if more boys than girls do chemistry, then they are bound to have the higher percentage of good grades).

It is understandable that newspapers and the media in general feel duty-bound to report on the annual exam results. After all, those pupils are the very people who will steer our country through the next eighty or ninety years. There is a tendency however, when there is no real news to report about the annual results, to focus in on tiny differences in gender achievements or a tiny rise or fall in the overall grades received overall. More or less A grades than average can make a good newspaper headline- and good headlines sell papers.

In reality, despite what reporters say on the television, radio, in the newspapers or on social media platforms, the students that achieve the best exam results are the ones who have worked the hardest. It is those pupils who will go on to get the university places, apprenticeships, and the careers they hoped for- whether they are boys or girls.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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