Grappling with gender

14th April 2000 at 01:00
THE Education Minister, who does not have much time for educational research, is none the less funding a series of studies into why girls and boys achieve differently at school (page three). Sam Galbraith argues that much research does not make robust enough connection between conclusions and the evidence supporting them.

The gender work at Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology, relying on materials lodged in the Scottish School Leavers Survey, is careful not to make exaggerated claims, least of all in interpreting what goes on in the minds of teenagers. It asks for more research, for example on the influence of peer culture in encouraging or discouraging success among boys and girls.

There are, however, conclusions well founded enough to affect what teachers do. Boys do as well as girls after Standard grade. The differences in achievement are found lower down the school and become built into the system, producing the overall poorer attainment by boys. So the argument that the problem needs to be tackled from a young age - starting wth early intervention programmes - holds good.

Teachers and policy-makers must not get carried away and concentrate wholly on the problem of boys. The Edinburgh research shows that the prospects for low attaining girls are poorer than for boys. Girls who do well in Highers are less drawn to university than boys, possibly because they opt for oversubscribed subjects and so some who are disappointed abandon higher education altogether.

The widely publicised fact that girls outperform boys in almost all subjects disguises the fact that gender still affects choice of study. Because of the common curriculum up to S4, that choice comes only in the upper school. Yet the absence of science and mathematics from the portfolio of many girl leavers means that not only does the workforce lose potential recruits to important areas but also that girls' earning power is affected. As research south of the border shows, leavers with A-level mathematics earn up to 10 per cent more than others with a similar level of qualifications. Girls can still be losers.

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