Issue 216 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Girls on top?

Jeannie Robinson

Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, recently announced, 'We must challenge the laddish anti-learning culture which has been allowed to develop over recent years,' which he claimed had led to under achievement, truancy and crime! Local education authorities (LEAs) will now have a new obligation to 'remedy' the gender gap which has been shown in GCSE grades and SATs results. Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, is commissioning research from Cambridge University to make suggestions about what can be done.

Of course, the Daily Mail had an instant solution - more streaming, more setting, more competition in schools, blame the trendy teachers again. David Blunkett's explanation was a 'lack of role models' so he has asked the Teachers' Pay Review Body to consider more pay for head teachers in primary schools to attract men! Author Fay Weldon suggested this was an example of postfeminism and that boys are now the oppressed sex. Girl power has won out. Professors of education had other ideas. Alan Smithers suggested that course work benefited girls. Ted Wragg linked the problem to the 'de-industrialisation of the workforce' and the rise of service industries.

It is important to remember that performance in examinations has been improving for both sexes since the introduction of comprehensive education. In the early 1970s about 22 percent of students achieved passes in five or more O levels, now it is nearer 45 percent. Within this band of pupils girls have, as a result of a push towards equal opportunities led by the so called progressive trendy teachers, improved their relative position to boys. It seems that boys and girls are improving on almost all educational measures but girls are improving more quickly. In subjects traditionally seen as boys' subjects, girls have begun to catch up. New Labour has published a white paper on education which proclaims that 'standards matter more than structures'.

David Blunkett promised to end selection. But we still have private schools, grammar schools and selection in grant maintained schools - selective schools are not going to deliver educational opportunities for all. Selection at 11 was built on inequality for girls. It was accompanied by quotas in grammar schools with more places for boys than girls. I well remember my first class in a London school in the early 1970s - two children passed the 11-plus but only the boy went to the grammar school. The head told me it was not a problem, the boy would benefit more, because the girl was from a manual working class family and she was black! My own experience at school in the 1960s was not untypical. When it came to choosing A levels I was told I couldn't do the subjects I wanted 'because girls don't do geology'.

The gender gap in primary schools is not new. A 1966 survey of 11,000 seven year olds found that girls were better readers than boys 'in all aspects of reading ability'. It found that in maths there were more high achieving boys than girls, but otherwise achievement was comparable. A survey of 5,000 primary pupils in 1971 found that the girls on average make rather higher scores than the boys in all tests, except vocabulary at 8 and 11 years. It seems that nothing much has changed inside the primary schools.

We also need to be sceptical about some of the headlines. Patricia Murphy presented some useful evidence in the Guardian recently. Although now girls and boys are both doing science, more boys are entered for the 'elite' single award science, so the small group of girls entered for GCSE physics who are outperforming boys are highly selected. If you look closely at combined science results girls are still underachieving in physics. Although girls are getting better results in technology than boys there is still a difference in the curriculum with girls participating largely in design and technology, food and textiles. In maths boys are still slightly outperforming girls, but girls are more likely to be entered for the middle tier of examination because of a perceived 'girl' anxiety in maths by teachers. Less able boys are likely to be excluded from any tier!

The higher up the education ladder you go the more the gender divide still exists. At A level males are ahead of females in subjects like biology and English. Boys are more likely to be studying maths with physics, which gives them greater opportunity to apply their maths and so they get higher grades. Although, men and women are going to university in equal numbers, the proportion of women achieving first class degrees, postgraduate qualifications and professorships is still very low, especially in science subjects.

So what is the problem? Is this the equivalent of a moral panic? Is it simply another opportunity for New Labour to blame parents and families? David Blunkett at a conference on parenting in Sheffield recently blamed the 'intolerable behaviour' of lazy and ignorant parents for many of the problems of underachievement and indiscipline. Having learned nothing from the antics of William Straw, New Labour wants to divert attention from their unwillingness to resource schools properly.

However, there is something real going on in some schools. It is interesting that in the private schools boys and girls are performing equally well, but at a large Chesterfield comprehensive school the new gender gap has been emerging. Of the numbers of pupils achieving five passes grades A to C, last summer, 54 percent were girls and 46 percent were boys. Some parents have noticed this differential and are choosing a neighbouring school for their daughters to keep them apart from 'underachieving' boys, and so the problem increases as the ratio of boys to girls increases.

Mark James, a teacher at the school, says that the National Curriculum has provided a common core curriculum for girls and boys and this has given girls greater opportunities. He feels that the boys have not got worse but the girls are getting better - 'girls' abilities were masked in the past'. He sees no great change in 'laddish subcultures' inside the school, no great 'crisis of masculinity' - boys have always been demanding in the classroom. He feels the idea of more male role models for boys is unhelpful if it is tied in with ideas of more discipline, more coercion, more pressure on single mothers to feel guilty. Streaming will not help, it will only place boys in the bottom sets and lower their self esteem. He rules out separate classes for the sexes as it reinforces gender stereotypes.

He suggests that the girls' advantage is their willingness to be more diligent, to conform to teachers' expectations and classroom routines. Although girls were more conscientious with their course work, this element of GCSE is now being phased out so their higher achievement cannot be simply related to nature of the exams. He gives some credence to Ted Wragg's view that the disappearance of manual work and the rise in service industry employment has been a demotivator for boys, as girls appear to take the new jobs. Boys at quite a young age, in areas of high unemployment where fathers face long term joblessness, are asking, what is the point of working at school? Mark argues that teachers are beginning to monitor and support 'underachieving' boys but with larger class sizes and increased time in the classroom it is increasingly difficult to meet individual needs in schools

However, this debate neglects to question the fact that still the majority of pupils are leaving school without 'benchmark' qualifications. A pressure group, Article 26, has worked out that the difference between boys and girls is much less significant when measured not by the top end standard of five A to C grades but by a total GCSE point score from A to G. The gender gap then shrinks to just under five points or the equivalent of one extra GCSE grade at grade C. Mike Baker, BBC education correspondent, suggests, 'The real gulf is not between boys and girls but between the top and the bottom quarters of the ability range both male and female. Here it is equivalent to ten GCSE grades.' This poses a rather different question: what is it that produces such a differential? The factor which most correlates with school achievement is social class.

New Labour is now wedded to a philosophy that the difference between high and low achieving schools is poor teaching plus low teacher or parent expectations. David Blunkett says, 'While poverty early on in life makes a great difference to the opportunities later on, it is poverty of expectation and dedication which is the deciding factor.' In launching the new literacy strategy he claimed, 'poverty is no excuse.'

The rationale for this is the evidence from Ofsted inspections that schools with similar catchment areas perform differently and this supports their claim that strong leadership, more effective teaching, and zero tolerance of failure is the answer. The publicity around a report into reading standards in inner London schools last year made great play of this but in fact the 'difference in reading performance at year six (age 11) between a more or less effective school was calculated to be the equivalence of six months'. This is not a great deal. The weakest readers across all these schools were the children from the poorest homes and included boys and girls.

More interesting is the correlation between SATs at 11 and social class in London as calculated by lan McCallum from the London Research Centre. He claims that 'just 20 percent of differences in pupil performance in London LEAs could be attributed to other variables which were independent of social class'.

Some of this 20 percent is connected with pupils who do not have English as their first language, some may be related to differences between schools. As Professor Robinson from the LSE recently commented, after looking at the statistics for educational achievement, 'If the government wants to raise standards it should first eliminate poverty.'

What is it that makes school learning harder for working class kids? Socialists do not believe poor kids are genetically inferior to better off kids, just as the recent exam results show that girls' biology does not interfere with their ability to learn. In 1932 a Board of Education report stated, 'Care should be taken not to overstrain girls: girls should take First School Examination about a year later than boys.' The reason for this was the stress of menstruation!

Janet Walls, an infant teacher in an area hit by the pit closure programme, talks about the impact of poverty on her school intake. She can see a rise in undernourished kids. Children cannot learn if they come to school hungry, distressed or ill. One mum last year was sent to prison for non-payment of her television licence. She has a high incidence of chronic asthma sufferers. Most learn despite these difficulties. It takes them longer to get started, but New Labour has rejected league tables which take these factors into account. She also notes that Derbyshire now has the highest class sizes in the country and nothing is being done to reverse the trend.

She says it is a fallacy that boys are less sensitive than girls. The boys are often the ones who miss their mums the most when they come to school, but society expects them to be tough. Of the 25 children who are on a register for 'special needs', only three are girls. She feels that the children who grow up in difficult circumstances react differently - the girls tend to become more withdrawn, the boys turn their emotions outwards and become aggressive. These are the pupils who cross swords with teachers at an early stage and later become labelled disruptive.

It seems that we should celebrate the evidence that girls are doing better at school but see that equality in the classroom for all boys and girls is still a long way off.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page