Girls shown to be more anxious over achievement

3rd April 2009 at 01:00
Government focus on academic failure among boys could be mistaken, according to research

Girls struggle more than boys to reconcile academic success with popularity, according to new research which flies in the face of the Government's continued focus on male underachievement.

And it is individual schools that play a crucial role in ensuring both boys and girls are able to cope with being bright, according to academics from Birmingham and Roehampton universities.

They say pupils' achievement usually reflects a combination of sex, class and ethnicity.

The researchers examined the attitudes of both sexes towards academic and social success. They interviewed 71 Year 8 pupils, all identified by their teachers as high-achieving, from nine schools across the Midlands and South East.

They discovered that school context was vital in determining an acceptable level of achievement. Behaviour that in some schools would be condemned as "swottish" was unremarkable in others.

"There are cultural expectations within schools of pupil behaviours which have, most likely, developed over time," the researchers said.

Many high-achieving boys were good at sport or prone to clowning around in class to ensure acceptance by their classmates.

While their own misbehaviour was usually cheeky rather than confrontational, they often developed friendships with disruptive classmates, acquiring credibility by proxy.

But many high-achieving girls - particularly those who were not overly popular - expressed a unique level of anxiety and discomfort.

The academics said: "They were neither sparkling stars nor serious swots. Their job was ... maintaining high educational achievement without being regarded as pushy or overly assertive."

These girls often felt the need to demonstrate an interest in fashion, celebrities and relationships in order not to be seen as asexual "boffins".

They also kept their own achievements at arm's length. Helen said: "Jasmine says she likes that I don't boast about how I'm really smart, even though she says that I am."

Other girls justified their success by deliberately isolating themselves from their classmates. Bethany said: "I just try my best and I don't really care what people think of me."

The researchers conclude that policymakers would do better to focus on the link between school values and pupils' experiences of success.

They said: "Rather than taking various elements of school and school populations in isolation, and responding to these through separate initiatives (eg "school effectiveness" or "gender" or "ethnicity" or "pedagogy and achievement"), attention might be more usefully given to the interplay of these within specific school sites."

- 'High achievement and gender in secondary schooling in England', by Christine Skelton, Birmingham University, and Becky Francis and Barbara Read, Roehampton University.

More than gender

- Pupil achievement is affected by gender, class and ethnicity.

- The gender gap is relatively small: not all boys are failures and not all girls enjoy academic success.

- In schools where all pupils respect achievement, high-achievers are much more likely to maintain their success.

- High-achieving girls demonstrated a uniquely high level of anxiety and discomfort about their success.

- Many avoided being labelled "boffins" by showing an interest in fashion, celebrities and relationships.

- Others distanced themselves from their own achievement by being excessively modest.

- The Government should take a holistic approach to improving school achievement rather than addressing individual factors, such as gender and ethnicity, separately.

Source: 'High achievement and gender in secondary schooling in England'.

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