Battle of the sexes

11th May 2007 at 01:00
Family attitudes to post-school education have changed dramatically in just one generation. Now, girls are overtaking boys in choosing to go to university.

PARENTS IN Britain have higher university aspirations for their daughters than for their sons, according to new research that maps a dramatic turnaround in the space of a generation.

The change, tracked in a survey covering England, Wales and Scotland, poses an added challenge for teachers in helping boys progress to further education: not only must they combat boys' poorer academic attainment, but also deep-seated family attitudes.

A survey of 137,000 parents and 288,000 pupils at more than 500 secondary schools, conducted by the research firm Kirkland Rowell, found marked differences in aspirations for boys and girls.

The Scottish sample drew results from 17,000 parents with children at 58 secondaries, and found they had an even stronger drive to get their youngsters - boys and girls - into university than those elsewhere in the country.

Among parents overall, 66.7 per cent with daughters aged between 11 and 16 said it was important that she went on to university, compared with 61.5 per cent who said the same for their sons.

Girls were also more ambitious: 79.9 per cent said they would like to go to university, compared with 75.2 per cent of boys. In Scotland, 73.9 per cent of parents underlined the importance of their daughter going to university against 68.3 per cent who said the same for their son.

The figures, based on school evaluation forms, raise questions about why parents have differing hopes for sons and daughters. They may be responding to test scores in which girls are performing better from a young age, and adjusting expectations accordingly. But the findings may recognise the influence of mothers who are anxious that their daughters gain the higher education that was not an option for previous generations of women.

At the same time, teachers and careers advisers say boys are considering a broader range of options when they leave school, including apprenticeships and setting up their own businesses, following the example of entrepreneurs such as Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Richard Branson.

Mark Chaplin, managing director of Kirkland Rowell, described the findings as surprising and significant: they indicated that girls' achievement was driven by parents' ambitions from an early age.

Kate Myers, an expert in gender in the education faculty at Cambridge University, said: "The positive feedback girls are getting from their teachers encourages them to think university is an option. Once parents wanted their daughters to find a husband who could support them; now, they look to a university degree for that support."

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