There is a growing trend internationally whereby females tend to achieve better than males in terms of examination performance at the end of upper second level education. This trend has been evident in Ireland for the past ten years or so and is also reflected in the respective performances of females and males in GCSE O and A level examinations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. My Department and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment have commissioned a number of research studies by the Educational Research Centre – ERC – St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra and the Economic and Social Research Institute – ESRI – which include analysis of the factors contributing to the performance of candidates in examinations. The ERC conducted a longitudinal study of the 1994 junior certificate candidates who took the leaving certificate examination in 1996 and 1997. The results confirm that the underachievement of males at junior certificate level is maintained in the leaving certificate examination. This pattern is also repeated in the case of the 2000 certificate examination results where females outscore males on most subjects in the junior certificate and leaving certificate.
‘Do Schools Differ', a research project undertaken by the ESRI for the Department of Education and Science, explored the impact of schooling factors on a range of pupil outcomes at junior and leaving certificate levels. This research confirms the different levels of examination performance by gender and also indicates that females make greater progress relative to their initial ability. Girls apply themselves better to homework and study and have higher educational aspirations. Nevertheless, the report shows that girls tend to have a lower sense of control of their lives, to report higher stress levels and to have lower self-esteem. In response the Department has initiated a number of personal development programmes for both sexes to address self-esteem among lower ability pupils in order to integrate them fully into the education process. The Department has also provided for boys a broader range of personal development programmes than hitherto available and encouraged the adoption of these and other existing personal development programmes, particularly in single sex boys' schools.
Our 8-15 early school leavers initiative and the stay at school retention initiative target those pupils most at risk of leaving school early and withdrawing from education. Boys are more likely than girls to leave school before the end of their second level education. Such interventions, therefore, combined with improved access to the junior certificate school programme and leaving certificate applied programme from September 2000 onwards, along with additional teaching resources provided recently for these programmes, should help to redress low achievement and in particular low achievement by boys.
The ESRI is also currently engaged in research on the gender uptake and performance of girls and boys in science subjects at leaving certificate as part of the Department's response to increasing the uptake of science subjects and in particular physical science subjects.