Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Wednesday, 27 May 2009 16:52 UK

Science gender gap 'widest in UK'

girl using microscope
Girls in the UK were better at identifying scientific issues

Boys outperform girls in school science in the UK more than in any other developed country, a study shows.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) analysed results from 57 countries in its 2006 "Pisa" study of 15-year-olds.

This showed the gender gap was the other way round in Turkey and Greece.

There was no overall significant difference between boys and girls, but some marked differences in various science competencies and knowledge.

Stereotyped notions were "simply not true", the OECD said. Girls did not score more highly in life sciences as many would have expected.

They were better at questions in which they had to "identify scientific issues" but boys were better at "explaining phenomena scientifically".

The analysis of the 2006 Pisa (Programme for International Assessment) results showed boys in the UK scored on average 10 points higher in the science tests than girls. The average was two points.

In Turkey, girls outperformed boys in science by 12 points and in Greece by 11 points.

Pride and complacency

The study considered research about gender differences more widely and found the structure of education systems and educational policies may play a role, along with "pressures operating outside the school".

OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria said: "Many countries have reason to be proud that boys and girls are now performing equally well in key school subjects.

"However, we cannot be complacent in the face of continuing gender stereotypes.

"Attitudes such as 'reading is not for boys' or 'maths is not for girls' must not be allowed to persist: they are too costly in terms of lost human potential."

The OECD concluded that the extent to which males and females have different outcomes in education and the labour market involves "an extremely complex discussion".

There were significant differences in many areas.

"The evolution of these differences provides some challenging issues for parents and educators."

The influence of cultural beliefs in a country and the effect of the media were not considered in this report "but are influences which cannot be ignored".

More homework

The study did consider the "vexing" question of whether males and females are better being schooled in single-sex or mixed-sex surroundings, but concluded that caution was needed because of the relatively small numbers of students involved.

"In a number of previous studies of secondary students it has been found that, in general, females do more homework than males. The results from 2006 support this observation in all subject areas."

A spokesman for England's Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "We know that more needs to be done to engage girls in science, which is why we are working to change attitudes and get more of them involved.

"We are bringing scientists and engineers into schools so they can share their enthusiasm for science, as well as getting more teachers who are skilled at engaging girls in science."

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