Scotland should consider restructuring its senior schooling system along German lines to re-engage boys and tackle the yawning gender gap in exam results, according to an expert.

The call comes after learners north of the Border sat external tests for the first time since 2019. Exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic, with grades determined by teacher judgment.

Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) figures for 2022 show that differences between outcomes for male and female pupils, while narrower than last year, are up markedly compared with 2019. The statistics continue a longstanding trend that sees girls consistently outperform boys across many measures of academic achievement.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said significant change was needed. He also claimed the gender gap was not being taken seriously due to a belief that, because the world remains male-dominated, boys will “always come out ahead in the end”.

“I think moving towards the differentiated system of schooling that you have, for example, in Germany would, by providing course content and styles of teaching that appeal to boys, give boys in Scotland and the UK the opportunity to boost their results and get more out of their education,” he told The Herald.

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The German system of secondary education, which is separated into lower and upper levels, is delivered in a range of settings depending on whether pupils are moving towards vocational qualifications or aiming for university.

Prof Smithers’ concern comes after SQA statistics revealed that the difference between male and female candidates in the proportion of Higher A grades awarded was 6.7 per cent in 2022 (31.2% versus 37.9%, respectively). This is down from nearly 10% in 2021 but up on the 4.7% gap recorded after the exam diet in 2019. There was an even greater relative jump at Advanced Higher level– from 0.5% in 2019 to 2% this year.

Some observers believe the increases may be linked to specific arrangements for the 2022 exams. Brought in because of the Omicron variant, they included advance notice of topics that would or would not be assessed.

Prof Smithers said: “The reason why the grades went up so much during the two years of teacher assessment is that, by and large, teachers see girls as being better pupils and tend to reward them. They respond to questions, they do the coursework, and are generally nice to the teacher. Boys tend to be more bolshie. They are not necessarily so interested, and they mess about.”

Commenting on signs that the gender gap in this year’s results is bigger than in 2019, he added: “With the advance notice this year of the question on a restricted syllabus, the canny thing to do is prepare the answers in advance because you could largely guess from past papers what the questions will look like and you will memorise the answers – and this is a bit like the coursework that girls excel in.”

Prof Smithers stressed the gender gap was not well understood. “It’s likely that there are personality differences between the sexes,” he said. “Now the question is, which ones come into play in school activities?”

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He also claimed there was a lack of learning opportunities that are genuinely attractive to boys, adding: “In part, it stems from Tony Blair, who wanted a big expansion of higher education.

“What's happened since 2000 is that there's been a great expansion of courses, in schools and beyond, in subjects like psychology or media studies, which are dominated by girls. But what's missing from it – and what society suffers from or what boys suffer from - is the development of practical skills.”

Prof Smithers said a senior phase with similarities to Germany’s could help address the underlying issues. “There needs to be a wider consideration of what should go on in schools and the various pathways,” he added. “It should be clear that courses will engage boys as well as engaging girls because what we have on offer at the moment, apart from the sciences, genuinely appeals much more to girls.”

Dr Jake Anders, deputy director at University College London’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, said it was possible that socially constructed expectations could be increasing the likelihood of boys’ relative underperformance.

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He told The Herald: “Just the fact that we’re assuming boys might be more bolshie and things like that. That’s come from a much earlier stage of expectation, where the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality means that certain types of behaviour from boys is seen as fine – that it’s a socially acceptable thing for them to be doing and so they will carry on doing it, even though it disadvantages them in terms of schooling and exams – while girls perhaps have got the feedback that it’s not a socially acceptable thing to do.

"I think it’s important that there are proactive attempts to make sure that we are not reinforcing gender stereotypes.”

Dr Anders also voiced reservations about the introduction of German-style senior schooling in the UK. “I know that there are big challenges with it in terms of socio-economic disadvantages,” he added. “One of the problems with more structured schooling systems like that - where you go to a different school rather than having a vision for people wanting to do different things within the same school - is that, inevitably, they tend to be captured by the middle class.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said an independent review of qualifications and assessment would consider a range of equality issues including gender. He added: “Grade A awards for both male and female candidates are higher in 2022 compared to 2019, for Highers and Advanced Highers.”