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CLOSING THE GENDER GAP: Post-war education and social change. By Madeleine Arnot, Miriam Davidand Gaby Weiner. Polity pound;13.99.

How much have gender differences changed in the past 50 years? It depends on where you look, says Gillian Plummer.

This ambitious book offers an in-depth account of "how, and in what ways, the gender gap has closed". It draws on post-war social, political, cultural and economic changes to explain how the balance of educational attainment between boys and girls has changed in the past half-century, leading to the current panic about girls outperforming boys.

The first of three parts sets out to explore how the specific gender patterns in education (identified by the authors in previous work for the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Office for Standards in Education) have been changed through state intervention, individual teachers' efforts to improve the situation of girls and social movements, including feminism.

It includes a useful analysis of changing patterns of gender performance at GCSE (five or more A* to C grade passes or the equivalent) between 1975 and 1995, which demonstrate girls' advantage over boys strengthening, particularly over the past decade.

This is put down to girls showing an improvement in mathematics and science, while holding on to their advantage over boys in English.

The authors have analysed the data by measuring girls' performance against boys'. This can be dangerously misleading. It's social class, as the authors frequently acknowledge, which is the single most important influence on educational attainment. However, there is a lack of readily available statistical data showing class and racial differences between girls at school level - this prevents us from seeing the on-going educational failure of the majority of working-class girls as revealed by university intake figures. It is important to remember that just over half of all girls are not included in the authors' performance data - they do not get five higher grade GCSE passes. Around 40 per cent of boys do.

In part two, the focus is on social policy and education reform. The authors look at the post-war transformation of women's working lives and the struggle for new gender identities. They argue that educational reform, while generating social divisiveness (with class differences made obvious by the gap in educational performance), also allowed girls to grasp new opportunities, while not offering educational support or motivation to boys suffering from changes to their traditional job prospects. Gender transformation became the hot new political issue, and educational change was seen as the way to deliver it. Later, Margaret Thatcher's reforms indirectly created the conditions for narrowing the gender gap, and the authors discuss at length her changing stance on the issue.

The strength of this section is the historical mapping out of long-term national trends and the wider social contexts of which gender issues are a part. The themes covered are: motherhood and women's work in the welfare state; schooling, teachers and feminism; markets, competition and performance. Male oppression is discussed, with the restructuring of the economy which provided opportunities for women to work.

There is, however, no reference to the rapidly growing number of working-class girls whose employment prospects are still limited to providing services for the middle class. A 1997 Mintel survey predicted that Britain would spend pound;4.3 billion on cleaners, nannies, cooks and other household help over the course of that year. Also, the historic backdrop to each chapter can give the feeling of repetitiveness - despite the fact there is actually very little repetition. But on the whole, this is a very useful section for any one wanting an easily accessible over-view of post-war changes.

It is in the third section, "New Generations of Girls and Boys", that the book comes alive for me. Here the authors analyse how economic transformations have disrupted gender patterns, and the extent to which political and social changes have altered gender identities, aspirations and educational choices in the past 20 years. Evidence is taken from studies on youth groups (white and black, working and middle-class).

The chapter on schoolgirls and social change discusses the rise of a female elite in independent and selective secondary schools, and the provision of co-education for the majority. Despite making significant attempts to explain the impact of race and class on educational achievement in their analysis, the authors just scratch the surface (three pages on race, five on class).

Black African-Caribbean and some Asian working-class girls were found to be notably higher achievers than white girls or white and black boys, yet black girls were following highly stereotypical career routes and experiencing downward social mobility after 16 - a result of racial and sexual discrimination. In contrast, Asian girls today are found to be highly aspiring in terms of careers.

Little is written about white working-class girls' educational attainment, and there is no reference to research on working-class girls' attainment after 1985 - a feature of their marginalisation in British educational research. Nevertheless, what is said makes interesting reading.

The last chapter looks at the situation of various groups of boys: the male elite, middle-class boys, upwardly mobile working-class boys, and working-class groups of white and of black boys facing a "crisis of masculinity".

The authors argue that behind the statistics of boys' poorer achievements (although boys are well represented amongst the highest achievers) lies the impact of social and educational restructuring - notably the break with Victorian values and the family model of the breadwinner and the decline of male employment. It has been more difficult for boys than for girls to adapt educationally, personally and occupationally. Boys have remained more wedded to traditional notions of male and female roles in the family.

Different groups of boys are differentially affected, depending on their position in the social structure. Schools, it is argued, are not challenging and transforming masculinity or encouraging adaptability to social and economic changes.

The authors' inclusion of biographical details make useful reading in that they inform the reader of the authors' academic feminist perspective. They also illustrate that, rather than breaking new ground, the book is largely pulling together and reviewing what is known. In this sense, it is a valuable read.

Gillian Plummer is a freelanceeducational consultant and the author of 'Failing Working-Class Girls',to be published by TrenthamBooks next year

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