By Peter Walker guardian.co.uk, Thursday 29 December 2011
Girls from single-parent families outperform boys in class because they are less affected by parental input, study shows
This effect appeared significantly less strong in girls brought up in non-traditional families. By the time the children were 10 or 11 the “gender gap” between boys and girls displaying behaviour problems in school was twice as big for those brought up by single mothers as those from traditional families.
Marianne Bertrand, study co-author and economics professor at Chicago University’s Booth business school, said: “This gap between girls and boys is one of the big puzzles troubling researchers right now, and the correlation with home life is really, really striking.
“We find no real relationship between parental input and girls’ achievement. It’s kind of like they are protected, in a sense. The parental input just becomes more relevant for the boys than for the girls.”
The findings were in no way intended to stigmatise single parents, she stressed. “It’s obviously a much more complicated picture. The only thing we’re trying to say – and we’re not the first ones to make this point – is that these families are very different in how much time they spend with their children, maybe because they have to spend more time at work. They don’t have to be malign reasons.
“But we’re not really going down that path. We’re documenting this fact, which is already fairly well accepted, and saying that, because this input matters so differentially for boys and girls, boys do particularly poorly in these families.”
Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at London University’s Institute of Education, said the study added to “a growing literature of things which explain exactly how disadvantage impacts children”.
“Obviously, home background makes a difference to all kids, but it seems to make more difference to boys than it does to girls,” he said. “It could be that girls are more resilient, but then also less able to take advantage of the very strong effects of positive parenting.”
The gender gap was a quite vexed area of educational research, he added. “It’s something people are quite sensitive about, and it can be hard to discuss in a sensible way, without just saying, ‘Well, they’re just boys.’ And the other thing people point out is that when boys outperformed girls no one worried about it.”
• This article was amended on 4 January 2011 to restore the title of the study, which was cut during editing