Boys are more likely to perform well in schools with a higher proportion of girls, shedding new light on why girls continue to outperform boys in many educational subjects.
A new study, published today in School Effectiveness and School Improvement, investigated how the school environment influenced boys' and girls' educational performance in secondary schools.
Studying the reading test scores of more than 200,000 15-year-olds from over 8,000 mixed-sex schools around the world, researchers discovered that boys' performance was significantly better in schools where more than 60% of the pupils were girls.
The implication is that the higher the number of girls in the school, the more productive the learning environment. Since boys have previously been shown to be strongly influenced by the school learning environment, they are therefore more likely to benefit from having higher numbers of girls in their school.
The authors suggested that characteristics more commonly associated with girls' academic behaviour, such as higher levels of concentration and motivation to perform well, may help to explain their positive influence.
With reading an essential skill which can influence performance in other subject areas, the findings reveal the importance of gender equality in schools.
Lead author Dr Margriet van Hek, from Utrecht University, commented: "Boys' poorer reading performance really is a widespread, but unfortunately also understudied, problem. Our study shows that the issue is reinforced when boys attend schools with a predominantly male student population.
"Yet schools can help improve this situation by ensuring a balanced gender distribution in their student population."
The results suggest that single-sex schools and vocational education, where subjects are often heavily weighted towards a particular gender, may not be beneficial to boys' learning. Policymakers should therefore consider introducing measures which encourage more equal gender distribution in schools.
However, the authors call for further research to establish how far the school-level discrepancies are replicated within the classroom, and whether the differences are present in other subject areas.
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Dr Margriet van Hek, Utrecht University
School Effectiveness and School Improvement