Posted on 24th November 2023

Why do boys do better?

2:38 PM, 24th November 2023
Why do boys do better?

On 23rd November, the DfE published the results of the second annual multiplication table checks. Dr. Helen Drury, our Executive Director of Education, spotted a difference in the scores of the boys and the girls, and it got her thinking.

I’m so afraid of perpetuating stereotypes and over-generalising – ‘Girls think this. Boys do that.’ – that I very nearly didn’t write this blog.

But the Multiplication Tables Check results came out, and this happened:


The average score of a girl born in February is the same as the average for boys born in July (19.9). September-born girls score an average of 20.7, the same as December-born boys.

And I was asked “why do you think it is?”.

I thought about a recent study by the OECD which found that, by age 15,

Girls, especially high-achieving girls, tend to underperform in mathematics because they generally have lesser self-confidence than boys in their ability to solve mathematics or science problems. They are also more likely to express strong feelings of anxiety towards mathematics.”

Is that what’s going on here? Are these 8 and 9-year old children underperforming due to anxiety?

It’s vital we keep remembering that these are averages.

Each school sees its own picture. Partly because the children in each school are unique and this is – obviously – about much more than gender. Partly because each school creates a different culture around learning maths.

What’s happening in schools where girls are doing as well as boys, or better?

Well, I’m lucky enough to work with some of them, so I can tell you.

  • They are schools where everyone is a mathematician.
  • Schools where children love to challenge themselves and make conjectures, safe in the knowledge that mistakes will be celebrated as opportunities to learn.
  • Schools where maths is meaningful and relevant, and learners make connections.

So the girls do as well as, or better than the boys. But guess what else happens? The boys do really well too. Everyone thrives.

Approaches to teaching maths that benefit girls, benefit boys too.

This is not about removing quizzes and competitions. Some people thrive on competition and challenge (and, yes, they’re more likely to be male than female).

Competing – against yourself for a personal best, against your peers, or even against anonymous strangers – is motivational.

Of course, lots of girls love competition. Plenty of boys hate it.

Removing competition and the challenge of speed might only disadvantage boys, it might put many girls at a disadvantage too.

A culture with too much emphasis on competition might not just make girls anxious, many boys might be anxious too.

So yet again I am in awe of primary practitioners. This is a really difficult terrain to navigate. But it can be done!

The OECD found:

at every level of performance, girls tend to have much lower levels of self-efficacy and self-concept in mathematics and science. And while girls have less self-efficacy and lower self-concept, they tend to be highly motivated to do well in school and to believe that doing well at school is important. They also tend to fear negative evaluations by others more than boys and are eager to meet others’ expectations for them.

Whilst this is true of many girls, it’s important for us to remember that it is also true of many boys.

Given girls’ keen desire to succeed in school and to please others, their fear of negative evaluations, and their lower self-confidence in mathematics and science, it is hardly surprising that high-achieving girls choke under (often self-imposed) pressure.”

Girls are more likely to express strong feelings of anxiety towards mathematics, but sadly, there are also many boys who feel the same way.

This is not

‘we’ve got a problem with girls, they’re anxious about maths’

This is

‘we’ve got a problem with maths anxiety, and it’s particularly bad for girls’

Changes we make to:

  • increase children’s self-confidence – their self-efficacy and self-concept in maths
  • ensure learners feel successful and believe they are doing well
  • remove ‘negative evaluation’ from the maths learning experience

will benefit all learners, and help close the gender gap.