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Silence of the lads

Girls traditionally outnumber and outperform boys at languages. Michael J Smith asks if it's time to take a tip from science colleagues and introduce reverse discrimination.

As a modern linguist I was interested to read in a TES Science Extra (16. 9.94) that scientists continue to be concerned about the imbalance in their classes between boys and girls. In modern languages we still suffer from that problem, too, albeit in reverse: science classes often have more boys, whereas in languages girls frequently predominate.

In asking ourselves whether there is at least some element of myth in these assumptions, we need also to consider the reasons for any perceived imbalance, whether we need to do anything about it and, if so, what.

Shortly before the introduction of GCSE, research conducted by Bob Powell of the School of Education, University of Bath indicated that at 16-plus girls outnumbered boys 3:2 in modern language classes. In A-level courses there were four girls to every boy and the statistics indicated that the gap was widening ("Boys, Girls and Languages in School", 1986, Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research).

Seeking reasons for this imbalance, Powell asked whether boys were perhaps inherently more ethnocentric than girls and whether they had a natural predisposition towards subjects which they perceived as more practical in approach and application.

These could, of course, be self-perpetuating myths which feed upon themselves, but if there is at least an element of truth in them, the advent of GCSE might be thought to have made some difference. GCSE syllabuses introduced a more relevant and skills-orientated approach to modern languages, which had to be reflected in teaching styles ab initio. If it was true that boys reacted negatively to merely theoretical and over-grammatical methodology, the changes brought in by GCSE should have proved attractive to them. There is little evidence that this has happened, such is the pulling-power of the received tradition.

In 21 years as a head of department, it was clear to me not only that girls predominated numerically but also that they generally outperformed boys. Where we had ability groupings, the top sets invariably contained many more girls, while the bottom sets were nearly filled by boys: only in the middle were the numbers comparable. At options time more girls than boys chose to continue their language andor begin a second. The gender imbalance was evident on the staffing side, too: in 21 years I had only one male departmental colleague. The preponderance of women language teachers is not only the result of imbalance in the past but arguably a significant factor in its continuation, as boys see our subject as female-dominated. As an A-level oral examiner I meet many more female candidates than male.

The introduction of the national curriculum in its original form promised to solve the problem - at least at 16-plus - by Government edict, as choice was eliminated and "a modern foreign language for all" became the watchwords. If boys eventually became convinced under the new regime that modern languages was not a "girls' subject", then maybe their take-up of second languages at 14-plus and, perhaps more important, of post-16 courses, would rise.

The Dearing review is now in danger of undermining these developments, as short courses are reintroduced for some pupils (mostly boys?) and modern languages resume their position with history, geography, art and music, as part of the pick 'n' mix package at key stage 4.

Equal opportunities are, of course, a feature of today's political correctness. We need to ask ourselves whether opportunities in modern languages really are equal in view of the widely-held perception of our subject as female-dominated. Are boys denied opportunities or do they simply not take them? Is some form of reverse discrimination desirable, morally justified or even possible?

The TES Science Extra reported a Dutch project in which 10-year-old girls were being taught science in single-sex classes "to reduce the effect of boys' domination in lessons". If girls similarly dominate in language lessons, numerically or academically, maybe we should be planning similar experiments.

Following the national curriculum's introduction of more real life elements in modern language study, we need to examine the content of post-16 courses with similar aims in mind. An article by Dr John Galloway ("A Woman's Place in the Laboratory", TES 9.9.94) quoted a Government recommendation to broaden the post-GCSE curriculum "to encourage more young people, particularly girls, to continue to study science beyond the age of 16".

For girls read boys and for science read modern languages: it seems high time for another Government initiative.

Michael J Smith is an examiner and a retired head of modern languages.

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