Emasculated English

18th March 2005 at 00:00
A 'feminised' society has changed the way literature is being taught, writes Joanna Williams

I've been filling in exam entry forms for my GCSE English class and have to decide which students will be entered for the higher-tier paper and achieve top marks and which ones will be consigned to the lower grades of the foundation tier.

One thing stands out: I've got girls in one column and boys in another.

I've been teaching English for 10 years now and despite switching from Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth and from Pride and Prejudice to Lord of the Flies, each year the girls massively outperform the boys.

My classes are typical: in 2004, 69 per cent of girls achieved an A*-C pass in English compared with just 54 per cent of boys. When it comes to literature, far fewer boys were even entered for the exam; 261,000 compared with 278,000 girls.

Many theories have been offered to explain this gender gap. It has been argued that the end of traditional industries and replacement of "men's jobs" with office, call-centre and shop work, has resulted in boys lacking motivation and losing any sense of purpose in continuing with education.

The effect of peer pressure and innate psychological characteristics provide a further explanation. The Office for Standards in Education notes:

"Anti-learning peer pressure is a major barrier to boys' achievement."

Others point the finger at a change in exams, with the introduction of coursework and speaking and listening assessments said to favour girls.

Another factor not so often considered is the wholesale feminisation of English as a subject that has taken place over the past 20 years.

Irrespective of assessment methods, the skills and values at the heart of the subject have shifted. What it means to be "good at English" is now fundamentally different from what such a strength implied a generation ago.

In a society in which gender divisions dominate, clear sets of values have come to be associated with each sex. Feminine values include perseverance, neatness, carefulness and conscientiousness. Girls are seen as caring, compassionate and emotional. Conversely, boys are thought of as noisy, boisterous, rebellious, aggressive and inventive.

We have moved from trumpeting masculine values towards celebrating the feminine in everyone. Society has moved from valuing a stiff upper lip to wearing its heart on its sleeve. We have gone from the stoicism of Churchill to the tears of Blair.

As a result schools celebrate "feminine" values such as compassion, empathy and co-operation while deriding "masculine" values such as competitiveness, aggression and stoicism. The changes in society are reflected in a curriculum which offers citizenship lessons, anti-bullying initiatives and emphasises inclusion.

This change is reflected in English teaching perhaps more than any other subject. English was once about the creation of meaning and engaging critically with meanings made by others to shed light on our very existence. The skills associated with such a practice would involve originality, creativity, determination, rationality and an ability to think analytically and logically.

This is a world away from today's English, with its emphasis on the acquisition of basic skills. Under New Labour, a utilitarian approach to the curriculum has become essential; every subject must now justify its purpose in terms of enhancing the future employability of students.

Knowledge becomes atomised and measurable with learning taking place by rote.

To study in this way requires a student to be passive, compliant, co-operative and obedient. Students seeking to engage in debate or criticism are silenced by the sheer weight of knowledge to be worked through and the frequency of assessment.

It could be argued that the study of English, through engaging with language and the production of meaning, has always involved some degree of discussion of what makes us human and how society functions - fundamental philosophical questions. But placing these issues in so central a place in the curriculum has brought a significant change. Previously, the text would have been of pre-eminent importance, having been chosen for its literary merit, and issues arising would have been debated in relation to the text.

Curriculum 2000 has placed the issues at centre-stage.

In the past, I have taught Pride and Prejudice to a GCSE class. We used class time to discuss the position of women in society, class differences in Austen's time and the significance of marriage. Now, I am encouraged to start with the issues I wish to cover and work back to find appropriate texts.

The difference is subtle but significant. English changes from being about the immersion in a great literary work that may or may not raise interesting points for discussion to a lesson on values and issues in which literary examples are mere illustrations.

Sympathy, sensitivity and audience awareness are assessed further in a dominant strand of the marking criteria for the speaking and listening, reading and writing components of the GCSE, which involves the ability to present information in ways that are appropriate, or relevant to the particular audience.

I do not wish to argue that basic literacy and audience awareness are unimportant, but there should be scope for moving on from this to assess the meanings produced by students.

There were many faults with O-levels and CSEs, but at least a minority of youngsters were able to study English at a level that went beyond key skills and literacy. Today, there is only basic literacy and citizenship for everyone. Student are rewarded for the "feminised" values of obedience, passivity and compliance to a set of grammatical rules.

Joanna Williams teaches at Thanet college of further education and is the mother of boys

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