Girls outperform boys in VCE results in all but maths and chemistry, data shows

Girls outperform boys in VCE results in all but maths and chemistry, data shows

Key points

  • Girls outnumbered boys in many top subjects, including English, further mathematics, psychology, health and human development, and business management..
  • But boys heavily outnumbered girls in specialist maths and mathematical methods, and in physics.
  • Enrolments in biology were heavily weighted towards girls and physics towards boys, while chemistry was narrowly weighted towards girls.

Girls outperformed boys in 16 of the 20 most popular VCE subjects last year, with boys’ academic ascendancy limited to maths and chemistry.

An analysis of VCE data shows girls also outnumbered boys in many top subjects, including English, further mathematics, psychology, health and human development, and business management.

Tutor and former VCE chemistry teacher James Kennedy, here tutoring year 9 and 10 students, has analysed VCE results data for 2021.Credit:Luis Ascui

But boys heavily outnumbered girls in specialist maths and mathematical methods, and in physics.

The gender imbalance was revealed in an analysis of VCE data completed by James Kennedy, a VCE chemistry teacher and director of Kennedy College, a tuition centre in Surrey Hills.

Kennedy, who has taught at non-government schools including Haileybury, Wesley and Loreto, said in his experience, students’ motivation to study maths and sciences was driven by wanting to get into a particular university course, rather than a love for learning.

“Chemistry is interesting and relevant to our daily lives, but they’re not the reasons students choose it; it’s because it’s a prerequisite for medicine,” he said.

The VCE data showed enrolments in biology were heavily weighted towards girls and physics towards boys, while chemistry was narrowly weighted towards girls.

Subjects where the gap in performance favoured girls most heavily included media (10 percentage points), visual communication design (9 percentage points), studio arts (9 percentage points) and health and human development (8 percentage points).

In English, the only compulsory VCE subject, girls were 4 percentage points ahead of boys.

Boys had the biggest advantage in specialist mathematics (3 percentage points), mathematical methods and chemistry (2 percentage points), followed by further mathematics (1 percentage point).

Subjects where enrolments were most biased towards girls included studio arts (76 per cent female), health and human development (75 per cent female) and literature (72 per cent female).

Male-dominated subjects included physics (77 per cent male), accounting (64 per cent male) and specialist mathematics (63 per cent male).

The data analysis did not include the small number of students who identified as gender X.

Greg Ashman, head of research at Ballarat Clarendon College and a VCE maths teacher, said educators had pondered for years how to encourage more girls to study maths, but achieved only modest success.

He said though there was no innate reason girls were less inclined to study maths, successive campaigns to encourage girls into science and maths had not yet overcome stubborn stereotypes.

“Our go-to approach seems to be, take some really successful female scientist or mathematician and get them to talk to girls and that will enthuse them and excite them about mathematics,” Ashman said.

“That kind of motivation lasts about 20 minutes and fades in comparison to the ongoing social pressure. It’s just not hugely effective.”

But Ashman said it was also true that many boys leaned towards maths and sciences because they were the fields where they had an academic edge.

“It could be that it’s about boys’ relative weakness in other areas that is part of this dynamic,” he said.

The analysis follows the release of national data last week that revealed year 12 participation rates in higher and intermediate mathematics have plunged, with fewer than one in 10 students attempting higher maths in their final year of secondary school.

Participation rates have dropped among boys and girls, but more sharply among boys, meaning girls have begun to narrow the gap in enrolments, though it is still roughly two to one in higher maths.

“When you look at intermediate maths, the ratio of boys to girls is almost 50/50 now and in higher mathematics the ratio has improved a bit as well,” Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute director Tim Marchant said.

“But there is still that major issue of the overall participation rate dropping and if you look at the data, the participation rate for boys is dropping more than for girls, so that’s not a really positive message.”

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