It's time to close the gender gap

3rd October 2008 at 01:00

So are boys cleverer than girls after all? That, certainly, is likely to be the debating point in many newspaper columns and, let's face it, in school staffrooms, following our front page story today.

It is a welcome debate, not least because of the underlying complexities, which sadly are unlikely to get much airing in the public prints or down the local pub. But there are also dangers that, if left unchecked, could lead to a serious narrowing of the school curriculum, with potentially damaging consequences for pupils and teachers alike.

While many teachers will be fascinated by the findings from the trials of a US-style university entrance test, few will be taken wholly by surprise. There has long been recognition that the school curriculum and examinations framework favour the careful and steady application of effort, rather than recognising quick-thinking, risk-taking, and other qualities likely to be useful to pupils, of both sexes, in adult life.

There is also general acceptance that girls tend to be more diligent while boys tend to be more challenging and easily bored. The simplistic conclusion to draw from the National Foundation for Educational Research findings is that GCSEs and A-levels are biased in favour of girls, while a SAT-style university entrance test favours confident, risk-taking boys.

Both claims may be true. There is also evidence that the trial entrance test is failing to identify the children it is meant to help - those from poor families. And it is not just a question of gender or class. Many critics of scholastic aptitude tests would question whether it is right to select students for university entrance based on reasoning in English and maths only.

One thing we might learn from the global financial crisis is that society should not have to choose risk-taking or diligence: we need both. Schools have done much in recent years to tackle the gender gap through more varied and dynamic teaching, while whiteboards, laptops and other technologies are making learning more exciting, especially for boys. There is a strong case for reforming 14-19 qualifications to offer a baccalaureate-style diploma, providing a broader measure of pupils' achievements, but any move towards setting narrow aptitude tests for university entrance would stultify the curriculum, particularly in the sixth form.

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