/ 17 January 2017

All bets are off when it comes to gender and maths

Second-grade children develop math skills in the elementary school at the John F. Kennedy Schule dual-language public school in Berlin
Second-grade children develop math skills in the elementary school at the John F. Kennedy Schule dual-language public school in Berlin

Don’t jump to the conclusion that, judging by 2016’s matric results, boys are better than girls at maths.

At least 57% of boys passed maths compared with 46.4% of girls. But a higher number of girls, 146 270, sat for the exam compared with 119 540 boys.

Vijay Reddy, the lead researcher from the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) for the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss), this week cautioned against simply looking at percentages rather than actual numbers.

Reddy said the percentage difference was “not necessarily an indication of better performance but rather could mask the fact that weaker performing boys have dropped out of the system whereas lower performing girls continue and persist”.

Education specialists consider the 2011 study as the most authoritative on this subject. A policy brief based on the study, as published in October 2015, found that, on average, the gender differences in maths results among grade nine learners across South Africa were “small or nonexistent”.

The brief was written by a former research specialist at the HSRC, Linda Zuze, and some of her colleagues to assist policymakers take informed evidence-based decisions.

The study showed varied results for different countries. In 22 out of the 42 countries participating in Timss, including South Africa, there was no statistical difference in average national test scores between boys and girls. There was a significant difference favouring boys in seven countries and favouring girls in 13 other countries.

“Although South African boys outnumbered girls among the highest achieving learners, based on the Timss international benchmarks, there was only a fraction of all learners among the top achievers and the gender differences were not statistically significant,” says the brief.

Instead, income levels were what made the difference to maths achievement levels, with significantly higher results among learners in independent and fee-paying schools.

“Gender patterns in achievement were strikingly similar within each of the three school categories”, namely, no-fee, fee-paying and independent schools, said the brief.

The brief pointed out that cross-national studies have often shown that girls experience higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of confidence in maths, “even when they are equally capable to boys”.

“In general, positive attitudes about the subject were related to higher test scores for all learners regardless of gender.”

An international study of gender equality in schools by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2015 found that girls lacked self-confidence in their ability to solve maths and science problems and achieved worse results than they otherwise would.

The 2016 results do not highlight whether results differ between single-sex and coeducational schools. But teachers think it is a factor.

Marna Jordaan, the headmistress of Afrikaanse Hoër Meisieskool in Pretoria, believes learner self-confidence was higher in same-sex schools than in coeducational institutions.

“Girls in girls’ schools tend to focus on their own performance. They are not trying to downplay themselves with the boys around them to make the boys look better than themselves. They [the girls] tend to be supportive of each other and they concentrate much better.”

Not only has her school achieved a 100% pass rate for the past 31 years but it also produced 730 distinctions in the 2016 matric exams – the highest in the country. All 1 131 learners from grades eight to 12 passed last year.

Jordaan said the teachers’ approach towards teaching also differed when he or she was teaching only girls.

“If there are girls and you are teaching English literature, you will rather do something like The Great Gatsby while if you have boys this novel is going to irritate them like hell and you will have to find something in between.”

Laura Bekker, the headmistress of Epworth School in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, said she felt that girls’ schools gave them an edge when it came to their approach to their studies and how seriously they took them.

“I do think that very often girls are very well focused on their studies. They concentrate well and are always concerned about being able to have completed the task.”

Maths is one of the key subjects required for the study of medicine, commerce, science, technology and engineering among others.

The 2016 matric results showed that 33 511 maths candidates achieved a pass of 60% – out of a total of 265 810 learners who wrote maths last year. The number of above 60% passes was up from last year. In 2015, 31 811 got above 60%, an increase of 1 700.

At least 1 308 of the 1 700 were black African learners, which the department of basic education said pointed to a “narrowing of the serious race-based inequalities in schools”.

“Black African schools currently account for about two-thirds of black African learners who achieve a mark of 60% or more in maths,” the department said in its matric exam report.

At the time of going to publication the department was unable to provide a complete demographic breakdown of maths learners.