Girls start primary school with two-month lead over boys

17 October 2008

Girls are already two months ahead of boys in their learning development when they start school, a UK-wide study has found.

Embargoed until 00:01hrs, Friday, October 17

Girls are already two months ahead of boys in their learning development when they start school, a UK-wide study has found.

In recent years there has been much debate over why girls are outscoring boys in almost every test from the age of 7 to 18 and are now more likely than boys to go on to university.

However, a study by researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, that involved 15,000 five-year-olds confirms that girls’ lead over boys is already well established when they enter school.

Children in the Millennium Cohort Study, which is tracking the development of youngsters born in the first two years of the new century, took three assessments involving vocabulary, picture similarities and pattern construction.

The assessments were conducted in the child’s home by specially trained interviewers and were designed to measure three of the most significant information-processing skills: verbal, visual/spatial and non-verbal. They showed that girls were roughly two months ahead, on average, on each of these measures.

“This doesn’t mean, of course, that all five-year-old girls did better than boys,” says Dr Kirstine Hansen, the study’s research director. “There was roughly the same number of boys as girls in the top 10 per cent of the ability range.

“However, there are fewer girls in the lower-scoring groups. Our age 3 assessments of the children showed the same general trend, so the gender gap in learning is established early in life.”

The study also revealed that the children of parents with no qualifications were considerably below average on each of the three measures. On average, they were four months behind on picture similarities, five months behind on pattern construction, and over a year behind on naming vocabulary.

Ethnic differences in performance at age 5 were also wide. Pakistani children were found to be seven months behind on the picture similarities measure, on average, while Bangladeshi and black African children were four months behind.

On pattern construction, Pakistani and  black African children were, on average, five months behind but they were even further behind in their verbal skills development. Like Bangladeshi pupils they were more than 12 months behind on naming vocabulary.

However, the researchers emphasise that a range of factors has to be taken into consideration when interpreting the inter-ethnic differences. “The importance of other languages spoken in the home, the duration of the mother’s residence in the UK and her family’s ability to handle the computer-assisted survey interview are just some of the factors that could help to explain these results,” they say.

“It is also interesting that the largest between-group differences are seen on the vocabulary scale, with much smaller differences on the two scales that are not vocabulary-based.”

The researchers also point out that differences between groups of children are not as great as the differences within groups. For example, the top 10 per cent of children in the lowest-scoring Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups outscored 50 per cent of the white children who were assessed.

The findings are presented in a report to be published today by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Millennium Cohort Study Third Survey: A User’s Guide to Initial Findings. The report can be downloaded from the Centre’s website after 9am today (October 17).

Further information:

David Budge
(off) 020 7911 5349
(mob) 07881 415362

Editors’ footnotes:

1. The Centre for Longitudinal Studies is an Economic and Social Research Council Resource Centre and is devoted to the collection, management and analysis of large-scale longitudinal data. The Centre houses three internationally-renowned birth cohort studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study. The MCS 3 survey was co-funded by government departments in the four UK countries.

2. The third survey of the UK-wide Millennium Cohort Study took place, mostly in 2006, when the children had reached age 5. It involved 15,246 families and 15,460 children because some families had either twins or triplets. Previous surveys of the families had taken place when the children were aged 9 months, in 2001-2, and when they were three years old, mostly during 2004. The study was designed to over-sample families living in electoral wards with high child poverty rates, and in areas of high ethnic minority concentration in England.

3.    Cognitive abilities at age 5 were measured with three subscales of the British Ability Scales Second Edition (BAS II): naming vocabulary, picture similarities, and pattern construction. The three subscales capture core aspects of verbal, pictorial reasoning, and spatial abilities. The subtests are robust measures and individually interpretable, helping researchers to understand the child’s abilities in the three most significant information-processing skills: verbal, visual/spatial and non-verbal. They can, however, also be used as a composite, giving information about the general cognitive ability of the child. One of the subscales, naming vocabulary, was used among the millennium cohort children at age 3, enabling researchers to follow verbal ability longitudinally, over time.

4.    The method used to compute these age-equivalent differences (using information on age norms from the authors of the British Ability Scales as well as the actual age of the child at assessment) provides only rough estimates. The translation into equivalent months becomes less meaningful as one moves away from the average.

5.    On the whole, girls continue to outperform boys at all levels of education in the UK from Key Stage 1 to higher education, according to the Office for National Statistics. In 2005/06, 64 per cent of girls in their last year of compulsory education achieved five or more GCSE grades A* to C, compared with 54 per cent of boys. In England, at Key Stage 1 (7 years old) to Key Stage 3 (14 years old), girls scored consistently higher than boys in the summer of 2007. The exception was at level 4 in Key Stage 2 (11 years old) mathematics tests, where boys did marginally better than girls.

Back to news listing

Media enquiries

Ryan Bradshaw
Senior Communications Officer

Phone: 020 7612 6516

Contact us

Centre for Longitudinal Studies
UCL Social Research Institute

20 Bedford Way
London WC1H 0AL


Follow us