What's the problem with girls outperforming boys at school?

Gillian Hampden-Thompson

Professor Gillian Hampden-Thompson is in the School of Education and Social Work and is the Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Research. She is also currently involved in three evaluations for the Department for Education Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme and two for the Educational Endowment Foundation.

The school environment has always felt right to me. I am organised and disciplined and like being around people, and I like learning, so what else do you do with that but teach?  When I was a child I knew I wanted to be a teacher.

I taught PE and science for five years, and some sex education. I was working at a school in Grimsby and they thought that, because I taught biology and was the youngest member of staff, I was the perfect candidate to do sex education.

It was a fantastic time of my life, but then I got an opportunity to do a Masters and then a PhD in the States and that took me down the research route.

I am interested in issues of social justice, so why some groups perform better than others and differences by socio-economic status, and what are the barriers for those who don’t progress through the educational system. Much of how well we achieve is explained by our socio-economic status. As such, the challenge for schools and colleges to overcome disadvantage is overwhelming. 

It’s a fallacy that education is going down the tubes. Politicians are keen on creating crises in order to solve crises, so it’s all, you know “children can’t read, children can’t add up”, but the reality is that children can.You have to question whether there is a crisis in the first place.

Some of the work myself and colleagues do is about dispelling myths. One of my projects, which involved looking at single parent households, found that it was change rather than family structure that actually affects children’s performance at schools. I was able to unpack that in a meaningful way.

Several studies have shown that there’s very little difference between schools. Most of the differences are within schools and is to do with the quality of the teaching by individuals. I am astonished at the lengths some parents will go to in order to get their children into what they would see as elite or ‘better’ schools.

My biggest complaint is that we test too much. We have to decide if we are testing individuals, or testing to see if the education system is working.  If it’s the latter, we don’t have to test every pupil. We just need to sample and test. The system here puts a lot of stress on pupils, teachers and parents.

It’s only recently that girls have performed higher than boys at every single level. I get a little  agitated by the attitude that if girls are doing better than boys, then there must be a problem. Few people thought there was a problem when boys were outperforming girls.

I am horrified when I go into some university departments and see there are so few females. Being in education, I never felt I was in a male-dominated area. In a secondary school it was pretty much a fifty-fifty split, but in higher education there are 4,800 women with professorships compared with 15,000 men. There’s something clearly wrong with this picture.


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 3 March 2016