Girls lead in primary school but boys catch up: MOE study

MOE study finds girls outdo boys in primary school but gap closes as they get older

Pupils in the hall at Yu Neng Primary School.
Pupils in the hall at Yu Neng Primary School.PHOTO: ST FILE

Girls tend to outdo boys academically at a younger age although this gap closes as they enter their late teens and early 20s.

Statistics from the Ministry of Education (MOE) showed that in the last 10 years, girls performed "slightly better" than boys in the Primary School Leaving Examination. Girls were around 2 to 3 percentage points over-represented in the top quintile, and about 3 to 4 percentage points under-represented in the bottom quintile.

At the O levels, girls were around 1 to 2 percentage points over-represented in the top quintile and about 1 to 2 percentage points under-represented in the bottom quintile.

But there was hardly any distinction in qualification to the tertiary level. The numbers of males and females pursuing degrees in local universities have been comparable over the past three years, said the ministry.

For instance, out of a total of 18,126 undergraduates in the 2015 intake for the six publicly-funded universities, 9,192 were female.

An MOE spokesman said these figures reflect global trends in educational results by gender.


Worldwide, girls are better readers than boys across all age groups up to upper secondary.

For mathematics and science, girls also generally do better than boys up to lower secondary but boys outperformed girls at the higher levels.

The disparity in performance between boys and girls is "a complex issue that depends on various factors, such as the subject matter, students' education level, motivation level and behaviours and the education systems", said MOE.

A 2015 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on gender equality in education stated that boys' poorer performance in school is likely linked to their behaviour rather than "innate differences in ability".

For example, boys reported that they spent one hour less each week on homework than girls, more time playing video games than girls and less time reading for enjoyment.

But MOE also noted that Singapore's gender gap in results is not as evident as in worldwide studies. In the latest 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment, for example, the difference in reading ability between 15-year-old girls and boys in Singapore was smaller than most other countries' and the OECD average.

The spokesman for MOE said the ministry has initiatives to support academically weaker students, regardless of their gender, such as learning support and remediation programmes.

Psychology experts and educators contacted said while boys and girls develop differently, parents should not oversimplify how they learn, especially at a young age.

Psychologist Daniel Koh from Insights Mind Centre said girls tend to be better listeners and are more receptive to details - qualities which make for more effective learning.

Boys, on the other hand, get bored and distracted easily, needing more stimulation and space to pay attention, he added.

They also tend to do better with practical and performance-based tasks, which feature more at later stages of education such as polytechnic and university.

But Assistant Professor Ryan Hong from the National University of Singapore's psychology department said research has largely yielded gender similarities rather than differences.

And these differences, like in maths or verbal reasoning, are usually small, he added.

He noted though that males here may have "matured in the course of national service and that allows them to be more focused and responsible in their university studies".

Mr Koh added: "Boys at times also take longer to determine what they want to do or find interest in something... They usually grow in maturity and discipline by the time they finish army."

Madam Esther Yap, 50, said her daughter, now 18 and in her third year of polytechnic, matured faster than her son, who is now 16.

"From primary to secondary school, he just liked to play computer games. Only at the beginning of this year in Secondary 4 when my daughter pushed him to think about his future, then he focused more on work," added the sales coordinator.

Her son wants to study engineering in polytechnic next year.

"I wasn't worried. I knew he would make it when he knows what he wants to do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline 'Girls lead but boys catch up'. Subscribe