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Sharp decline in girls’ performance in higher level Leaving Cert maths

Study says females ‘disadvantaged’ by changes to syllabus over past decade

There has been a sharp decline in girls’ performance in Leaving Cert higher level maths compared to boys since 2012, according to a new study.

This achievement gap between the genders began to widen significantly after the introduction of the new “project maths” syllabus in 2012

Project maths places more emphasis on real-life scenarios with the objective of giving students a real understanding of maths, as opposed to knowledge gained through a more abstract and procedural approach.

2012 was also the year that an additional 25 bonus points were introduced for all students who achieved a H6 (40-49 per cent) or above in higher level maths, which prompted more students take on higher level maths.


The Society of Actuaries’ report shows that males achieved a greater share of top grades long before the introduction of these changes. However, the gap has widened significantly over the past decade.

Even though the number of boys and girls sitting the exam were broadly equal over this period, only 25-30 per cent of all H1s – the highest grade – were achieved by females.

The gap disappeared in 2020 when teacher-estimated grades were introduced as a Covid-19 emergency measure. The return to traditional written exams in recent years has resulted in a gender gap re-emerging.

The report also points out that there was a sharp deterioration in woman performance at the highest grade in the 2022 Junior Cycle maths exam.

The Junior Cert maths exam was replaced by the new Junior Cycle exam in 2022. Although the mathematical content of Junior Cycle Maths was broadly unchanged, it did involve a different approach to teaching, learning and assessment. 2022 also marked the introduction of a new grading system at Junior Cycle level.

The analysis from the Society of Actuaries stems from a concern about a decline in the proportion of woman new entrants to the actuarial profession from the late 2000′s, which was a reversal of a steady increase to parity in the previous decades. When examining why this decline had occurred, the SAI Working Group found that it broadly mirrors the gender gap at the highest performance level in Leaving Certificate Higher Level Mathematics that has been particularly evident since 2012.

The Society of Actuaries has provided its findings to the Minister for Education and is hosting a public webinar on 29th November to discuss the report and its recommendations with key stakeholders and interest groups, including the Department of Education.

The report cites other research which has established that the application style questions introduced to the Leaving Cert exam as part of the project maths syllabus changes require not just mathematical skills but also the application of spatial reasoning, as there is a proven link between spatial ability and problem-solving ability.

The research also points to an internationally recognised gender gap in spatial reasoning, which is known to widen through the secondary school years.

The paper’s authors believe that the introduction of “unseen” questions that require spatial reasoning skills to the Leaving Cert exam have significantly discriminated against female Leaving Cert students.

The authors also cite research in Ireland has also found that teenage girls are generally less confident than teenage boys when it comes to maths. In addition, female second-level students are much less likely than males to choose subjects which hone spatial reasoning skills such as applied maths, physics and design & communication graphics.

It adds that many single-sex girls’ schools do not offer these more spatially focused, optional subjects.

“These subjects are directly beneficial to a student’s ability to perform well in the application style questions in the Leaving Cert maths exam, and the fact that many females do not have the opportunity to access them is a clear form of gender-based discrimination,” the report states.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent