Gender and attainment in Northern Ireland: How can we understand the division?   

Gender and attainment in Northern Ireland: How can we understand the division?   

Post-primary attainment is commonly measured through GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) examinations which are completed in the final year of compulsory schooling in the UK at age 16. The GCSE attainment outcomes of pupils are annually reported in Northern Ireland by the Department of Education. They are presented according to school type (grammar schools which select pupils based on their academic ability on an entrance test (also known as the transfer test) or non-grammar schools which are not academically selective in their intake of pupils), socio-economic status (Free School Meal Eligibility) and gender. The gendered division in educational attainment in Northern Ireland continually receives policy attention, most recently from the Expert Panel on Educational Underachievement in Northern Ireland. This leaves the questions: what is the gender attainment divide, and how can we understand it?

What is the gender attainment divide?

Gender is an important determinant of attainment differences across the compulsory education system in the UK. Studies report the consistently higher performance of female pupils compared to males (Adcock et al., 2016; Department for Education, 2020; Cavaglia et al., 2020; Francis and Skelton, 2005; Gorard et al., 2001; Melhuish et al., 2013; Tinklin et al., 2001).

Northern Ireland reflects a similar trend to the rest of the UK, with females achieving higher GCSE attainment than males (Borooah and Knox, 2017; Department of Education, 2019; Gallagher and Smith, 2000; Shuttleworth, 1995). Most recently, in a newly published study we used a dataset in Northern Ireland that linked the 2011 Census with the School Leavers Survey and School Census for the first time.

The study explored how a pupil’s gender, religious affiliation, socio-economic status (measured by mothers’ and fathers’ education qualifications and occupational status, Free School Meal Eligibility, home ownership, property value, and the 2010 Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure for income) and attended school (grammar or non-grammar) influenced their GCSE attainment.

We found that females had higher educational attainment as they achieved higher GCSE scores than males. The gendered effect on GCSE attainment was the joint second greatest effect (with mothers’ education) in our study. Although the gendered division of attainment outcomes is likely to emerge at an earlier stage of the compulsory education system in Northern Ireland, this is not possible to explore as there are no available individual-level attainment data prior to GCSE. Despite this limitation in the Northern Ireland context, an attainment difference according to gender is clear, which leaves the question: how can we understand this gendered divide?

How can we understand the gendered attainment divide?

An interdisciplinary framework consisting of Bourdieu’s theory of practice and Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theorycan help our understanding of the gendered attainment divide.

 Bourdieu’s (1986, 1984) writings predominantly focus on social status and how position affects an individual’s ability within the education system. His work on habitus, which can also be described as an individual’s dispositions or character, is relevant to understanding the gendered attainment division. Social identity theory developed by Tajfel and Turner (1979) can also aid our understanding of the gendered division in attainment as it outlines the process an individual is exposed to when forming an identity based on characteristics such as gender.

Habitus refers to an individual’s dispositions or character which organise and affect how they perceive the social world. Habitus reflects a degree of fluidity as it can change according to context, time and the social identity of an individual based on characteristics such as their gender. Habitus is therefore connected to social identity theory in a cyclical process where an individual’s identity influences their habitus, and vice versa.

Tajfel (1972) suggested that social identity was a result of the socialisation process, which provides an individual with the ability to identify with social groups they have a common characteristic with (for example, gender). The social identity process can result in individuals internalising behaviours associated with their gender, which can alter their habitus. This process, coupled with potential gendered socialisation experiences, could heighten habitus differences between males and females in settings such as schools. For example, an individual’s gendered identity and habitus may influence academic attitudes and expectations based on the norms and values of the affiliated social group, all of which can influence educational attainment and lead to a gendered division.

We must acknowledge that the cyclical process between habitus and social identity is not straightforward as more than one male and female social identity exists. For example, studies have reported multiple male social identities (also termed as masculinity) in educational settings (Connolly, 2006, 2004; Lyng, 2009; Travers, 2017). Lyng (2009)identified various masculinity types in schools, such as macho, geek, golden boy, and nerd. It could be argued that each of these identities has a varying influence on an individual’s habitus, which ultimately affects their educational attainment. For example, the identity of macho may have a greater negative influence on educational attainment compared to the identity of geek, which reflects a greater attachment to school. Femininity identities are also important to consider but are under-researched (Lyng, 2009).

Key Messages

  • A gendered attainment divide remains in Northern Ireland (and the wider UK).
  • Gender remains a key factor driving educational attainment differences between pupils (Early et al., 2022).
  • A dual framework of Bourdieu’s theory of practice, more specifically the concept of habitus, and Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory can help our understanding of why a gendered attainment divide persists.
  • The social identity process can lead to individuals internalising behaviours associated with their gender, which can alter their habitus and affect their educational attainment outcomes.
Dr Erin Early

Dr Erin Early

Dr Erin Early, Research Fellow (CEPEO, IOE - UCL's Faculty of Education and Society)

Erin Early is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society. She was previously a Research Assistant at Queen’s University Belfast. Her background is Sociology and Criminology (BA Hons), Social Research Methods (MRes) and Education (PhD). Her research interests are centred around social inequalities, particularly in education and the family.

References and Further Reading

Adcock, A., Bolton, P. and Abreu, L. (2016). Educational performance of boys. London: House of Commons. Available at:

Borooah, V.K. and Knox, C. (2017). Inequality, segregation and poor performance: the education system in Northern Ireland. Educational Review, 69(3), pp.318-336. doi:   

Bourdieu, P. (1986). ‘The forms of capital’, in Richardson, J. (ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Westport: Greenwood, pp. 241-258.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste (translated by Richard Nice). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

 Calvaglia, C., Machin, S., McNally, S. and Ruiz-Valenzuela, J. (2020). Gender, achievement, and subject choice in English education. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 36(4), pp.816-835. doi: 

Connolly, P. (2004). Boys and Schooling in the Early Years. London: Routledge Falmer.

Connolly, P. (2006). The effects of social class and ethnicity on gender differences in GCSE attainment: a secondary analysis of the Youth Cohort Study of England and Wales 1997-2001. British Educational Research Journal, 32(1), pp.3-21. doi:

Department for Education (2020). Key stage 4 performance, 2019 (revised). Available at: 

Department of Education (2019). Year 12 and Year 14 Examination Performance at Post-Primary Schools in Northern Ireland 2018-19. Available at:

Early, E., Miller, S., Dunne, L. and Moriarty, J. (2022). The Influence of Socio-Demographics and School Factors on GCSE Attainment: Results from the First Record Linkage Data in Northern Ireland. Oxford Review of Education (forthcoming). doi:

Francis, B. and Skelton, C. (2005). Reassessing Gender and Achievement: Questioning contemporary key debates. London: Routledge.

Gallagher, T. and Smith, A. (2000). The effects of the selective system of secondary education in Northern Ireland. Bangor: Department of Education. Available at:

Gorard, S., Rees, G., and Salisbury, J. (2001). Investigating patterns of differential attainment of boys and girls at school. British Educational Research Journal, 27(2), pp.125-139. doi:

Islam, G. (2014). Social Identity Theory, in Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology, (ed. Teo, T.), pp. 1781-1783. New York: Springer. doi:

Lyng, S.T. (2009). Is there more to “antischoolishness” than masculinity? On multiple student styles, gender and educational self-exclusion in secondary school. Men and Masculinities. 11(4), pp.462-487. doi:

Melhuish, E., Quinn. L., Sylva, K., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. and Taggart, B.(2013). Preschool affects longer term literacy and numeracy: results from a general population longitudinal study in Northern Ireland. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 24(2), pp.234-250. doi:

Power, E.M. (1999). An introduction to Pierre Bourdieu’s Key Theoretical Concepts. Journal for the Study of Food and Society. 3(1), pp.48-52. doi:

Shuttleworth, I. (1995) The Relationship between Social Deprivation, as Measured by Individual Free School Meal Eligibility, and Educational Attainment at GCSE in Northern Ireland: a preliminary investigation. British Educational Research Journal, 21(4), pp.487–504. Available at:

Tajfel, H. (1972). ‘Social categorization (English manuscript of ‘La categorisation Sociale’)’, in Moscovici, S. (ed). Introduction à la psychologie sociale (vol. 1). Paris: Larousse, pp. 272-302.

 Tajfel, H. and Turner, J.C. (1979). ‘An integrative theory of inter-group conflict’, in Austin, W.G. and Worchel, S. (eds.) The social psychology of inter-group relations. Belmont: Wadsworth, pp.33-47.

Tinklin, T., Croxford, L., Ducklin, A. and Frame, B. (2001). Gender and Pupil Performance in Scotland’s Schools. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. Available at:

Travers, M.C. (2017). White working-class boys: teachers matter. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.