Are girls now really on top?

21st January 2000 at 00:00
In the fuss about boys' underachievement, Kate Myers warns against complacency about their female classmates.

BOYS' poor performance in the classroom has prompted concern over an apparent gender gap in achievement. Yet it was not always like this. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the concern was to get girls to fulfil their potential.

The ethos of the time made it a difficult climate in which to operate sensibly and rationally. Sneering tabloid headlines greeted any initiative that tried to raise the achievement or aspirations of girls and black pupils. For some reason, now that the concern is about boys, similar initiatives do not seem to attract the same kind of response.

In 1975-76 - the year the Sex Discrimination Act became law - 23.1 per cent of girls compared with 22.6 per cent of boys obtained five or more higher grades at O-level or grade 1 CSE, the equivalent of today's five A-C grades at GCSE. Although comparisons over time are notoriously difficult, it does seem that then, as now, girls were doing better than boys

at 16.

So what was the problem, and why were so many women and a few men galvanised to try and do something about girls' achievement? What is, and was, all the fuss about?

Well for a start, better school performance was not earning girls a better deal in the workplace or further education. At the end of the Seventies, 61 per cent of women were employed in only 10 occupations, many of them low-paid and low status. Most women in waged work were clerks, cashiers, shop assistants, secretaries, maids, cleaners, and nurses. As far as further education was concerned, it is only on catering, nursing and secretarial courses that girls outnumber boys.

Not surprisingly, women earned a lot less than men. In April 1977, the average gross weekly income for a male non-manual worker was pound;86.02. Non-manual female workers earned pound;52.06.

Although girls were generally doing better than boys up to school-leaving age, it seemed that some skills and qualifications were more important than others in preparing young people for the workplace.

Expectations of what was appropriate work for men and women were fairly traditional (even more than now). From birth to grave, images reinforced expectations. These issues, and the new legislation, encouraged some educationists to look behind the statistics and examine the school curriculum.

Most primary and secondary schools were offering girls and boys distinctly different experiences. It was not so subtle in secondary schools where overt differences were commonplace. In the craft curriculum, for example, girls took needlework, domestic science or home economics, and boys took woodwork, technical drawing and


The curriculum reflected the different expectations society had of girls and boys. The world outside school also showed gender-segregated work patterns and leisure activities.

In the days before the national curriculum, subject choice was given at a time when vulnerable adolescents were most likely to be influenced by peer group pressure and wha society expected of male and female roles. Even when both sexes were following the same curriculum, they were exposed to what many would now consider stereotyped views of race and gender. This happened through curriculum content, textbooks and expectation. Although girls were doing marginally better overall at 16-plus, they were under-represented in certain subjects (particularly physical sciences and maths).

Today, there is no doubt that things have changed. Girls are doing even better and in a wider range of subjects in schools. But women at work are still faced with the "glass ceiling" and in spite of the "new man", many working women with children (and other carer responsibilities) are still faced with the

double shift.

Young women (and men) still receive mixed messages about the role of women. Yes, "girls" can be powerful but, at the same time, page-three portrayals ensure they are still downgraded and demeaned. They are not allowed to forget their real role in life or get too uppity, and they are still primarily the carers - responsible for childcare and that of elderly relatives - regardless of their other obligations.

The recent concerns expressed in the media about the under-achievement of boys has put equal opportunities back on the agenda. But, as before, we need to take a closer look at the figures before being able to suggest effective strategies for dealing with the situation.

Which boys are underachieving? Some boys are actually doing very well.

What is happening to girls in school and after they leave? They are still not doing so well in some subject areas and, regardless of their actual ability, girls tend to have less confidence in their academic achievement and self-report their ability lower than boys.

What happens to girls when they get into the workplace? Women who work full-time earn an average 80 per cent of men's hourly pay and latest figures show this gap widening.

What about life outside school and the work place? How can young men and women take part in equal relationships in the context of the laddish culture we are now "enjoying"? The workplace as we know it is changing in such a dramatic way, with heavy industrial and manual jobs diminishing at a rapid rate and information and communications technology having a growing impact of on both work and lifestyles.

How much has really changed for girls and how much credit should be given to these earlier initiatives based on raising their achievement? What, if anything, can we learn from them for this issues of today?

The issues raised here will be addressed at a conference jointly sponsored by the Equal Opportunities Commission, the National Union of Teachers and Keele University's Improving Schools Network in London on February 8. The day will also see the launch of a new book, Whatever Happened to Equal Opportunities in Schools: Gender Equality Initiatives in Education edited by Kate Myers and published by the Open University Press. Details of the conference are available from Melanie Broad 01782 5833552, (email:

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