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Forget gender, class is still the real divide

Reports of girls' GCSE success obscure the true picture, says Gillian Plummer

Yet another simplistic, statistical interpretation of gender differences in examination results makes the national news: "Boys are outperformed by girls in GCSEs." As a result the Government wants all education authorities to take action in raising the academic performance of boys.

But beware: simplistic statistical analyses are dangerously misleading. We do not have a hierarchy in which girls are positioned in the top 50 per cent and boys in the bottom 50 per cent at GCSE. It is social class, not gender or race differences, which continues to have the single most important influence on educational attainment in Britain.

Fifteen years of Conservative education reforms and funding policies have demonstrated that, try though you might, social structure cannot be divorced from educational standards.

The very strong correlation between social class and educational attainment can be seen as early as the infant school. National curriculum test results for seven-year-olds show a clear class relationship. The gap appears to widen as children grow up because GCSE results show an even stronger correlation with social background.

Teresa Smith and Michael Noble in Education Divides (1995) report: "Data from urban areas in 1993 shows that, in the poorest districts, comprehensive school pupils achieve on average approximately half the success rate in getting five-plus higher-grade GCSEs of comprehensive pupils in the most advantaged urban areas."

Reports from the Department for Education and Employment also point out that the bottom 30 local authorities at GCSE are in substantially deprived urban areas.

The majority of boys and girls from socially advantaged families do much better in all subjects at GCSE than the majority of girls from socially disadvantaged families. Similarly, girls' schools holding the top places in GCSE tables have proportionately few socially disadvantaged pupils.

While, overall, girls do out-perform boys at GCSE - working-class girls do marginally better than working-class boys in public examinations - the difference is not significant enough to reduce class inequalities within gender (or racial) groups. Analyses of external examinations at all ages show working-class under-achievement is the real issue. The gap is particularly noticeable post-16.

The sharp increase in the number of young people staying on after 16 helps to disguise that it is those from poorer areas who are still much more likely to leave without qualifications - the staying-on rate can range from 35-78 per cent between local authorities.

Among the working classes higher education remains an exceptional experience. Again this cuts across gender divides. Ivan Reid (1993) calculated that even in the late Eighties, girls in my own class group, social class V (five), had a 0.8 per cent chance of attending university and a 1.2 per cent chance of any form of higher education. This is still the case. The Commission of Social Justice noted in 1993: "Only 1 per cent of women whose fathers are from social class V hold an undergraduate degree or equivalent, compared with 4l per cent of men with fathers from social class I (one)."

The desperate need for detailed research on the educational failure of the majority of working-class girls has been hidden by:

* statistics recording the admirable rise in the achievements of middle-class girls, who are taken to represent "all girls"; and

* serious concerns about the deviant behaviour and particularly poor exam performance of working-class boys.

True, the socialisation of boys does need addressing. Historically, it has been boys, especially working-class boys, who have dramatically outnumbered girls in schools and special units for children with learning difficulties and emotional and behavioural problems. Boys have also been far more likely than girls to get expelled, or to truant from school.

However, a closer look at the situation of working-class girls in terms of examination performance, further education and work placements is long overdue. Attention could then focus on the many problems that underlie the girls' failure and which manifest themselves in equally harmful behaviour patterns: self-exclusion, withdrawal, depression, anorexia, and early pregnancies. These are serious issues which have been neglected for too long.

It is dangerous and inaccurate to imply that all boys underperform and that all girls do well.

Schools need to analyse the impact they have on pupils of different gender, race and class backgrounds and focus on those who need support. Schools already have plenty of data to assist analysis and action, in terms of patterns of setting, option choices, exam results, work experience, pupil destinations, exclusions and staffing.

The real question is: what action is Labour taking to raise the academic performance of working-class girls?

Dr Gillian Plummer is an educational consultant, an associate adviser with Essex education authority and an inspector for the Office for Standards in Education. She would welcome responses from interested readers(Tel: 01394-450956)

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