Bad lads

12th September 2008 at 01:00
Is our education system biased towards girls?

Education is currently structured in a way that institutionally favours girls over boys, a leading academic has warned.

Professor Alison Wolf, of King's College London, said that the exam system of modular GCSEs and A-levels, and the emphasis on essay-writing in some subjects, were the central culprits.

And the Early Years Foundation Stage, being introduced for the under-fives this term, may accentuate this disparity, she said.

This is because it sets the same expectations for all pupils, regardless of their gender, ignoring the fact that boys tend to be later starters in learning.

Boys are also generally more reluctant to sit still to learn, as they are expected to do from the age of five onwards. This could lead to their becoming frustrated, it is believed.

Professor Wolf's comments came during and after a debate in front of an audience of young people in central London that was run by the Edge Learner Forum, a charitable project for 13- to 21-year-olds that aims to encourage young people to become involved in education projects and policy.

Speaking to the forum last week, Professor Wolf said: "The modern primary school is much more girl-friendly than boy-friendly at the moment.

"We are doing something particularly wrong with the Early Years Foundation Stage. There is absolutely no notice taken of the fact that boys and girls develop differently at that age.

"We tilt the whole curriculum in girls' favour, right from the age of three onwards now, and I think that's a real problem."

She said afterwards: "There is evidence that it is quite normal for boys to learn late. There are some small boys who need to rush around a lot, and yet we are expecting four-year-olds to do a normal school day."

Professor Wolf said the exams regime also favoured girls who tend to be more studious, rather than boys, who were inclined to leave revision to the last minute.

"The more you encourage kids in their teens to be conscientious, and to take notes and to regurgitate, the more you tilt things in girls' favour, because they are better at it at that age," she said.

"There is very little in the system which rewards boys' strengths, such as quickness, getting to the point, doing things efficiently. These are also very difficult things."

Her comments were backed by fellow speaker Rosemary Leeke, head of South Camden Community School in central London. She said the education system had changed dramatically since the early 1970s, when expectations of girls were low.

"The work to give girls opportunities has been very successful. But what we have done collectively has been to take our eyes off the needs of young men," she said. "The way that we award marks for exams is more geared to the way that girls work. We are now only belatedly beginning to put that right."

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, said that there was "quite a lot of evidence" that boys differed from girls in their learning strengths and weaknesses.

"Girls tend to develop social skills more quickly than boys, and empathy in particular, whereas boys are more likely to be interested in systems of diff- erent kinds," he said. "I am against the idea of targeting children on the basis of their sex, because although you find differences between the sexes, you also find individuals who are atypical. If a child has particular strengths, teachers might want to adapt their teaching methods to reflect that.

"It is potentially discriminatory at the moment that all children are expected to reach the same level of sitting still, for example, for the same amount of time."

Several government initiatives have been targeted at boys in recent years, including a pound;600,000 Boys into Books scheme last year, which aimed to encourage 11- to 14-year-olds to read more by offering a list of exciting stories.

Professor Wolf's concerns about GCSE and A-levels favouring girls may be borne out, however, by international evidence from last year's OECD Pisa tests.

These found UK boys outperforming girls in maths and science, though they were behind them in English. In all three subjects, girls are ahead of boys in their domestic equivalent.

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