Ask any student teacher who performs at school best, girls or boys, and they will invariably answer "girls". How different from the picture 30 years ago, when feminists bemoaned female underachievement at maths and science, and mainstream society rested secure in their assumption that boys, naturally, do best.
Yet to ask this question of students is, in any case, to ask the wrong one. A multitude of studies have shown that achievement figures are patterned by a host of different factors, including ethnicity and social class, meaning that certain groups of boys continue to outperform other groups of girls. To talk as though girls and boys are homogeneous groups is nonsensical and leads to misleading stereotypes.
Neither are boys (as a group) underperforming across the board, whatever the panic merchants may suggest. They do, however, tend to underperform at literacy and language. Even here, where the gender gap is strongest, middle-class boys still outperform girls on free school meals. But within each social group girls outperform boys at literacy. This pattern is illustrated right across countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And in the UK boys are also disproportionately represented among low educational achievers, especially for working-class white boys and black boys of Caribbean heritage.
Yet ever since the publication of league tables in England in the early 1990s first highlighted that boys were not outperforming girls to the extent supposed, such nuance has been sadly lacking in the ensuing moral panic around "boys' underachievement". In spite of continuing evidence of issues facing girls and women in education, "gender and education" has since tended to be conceived by policy makers - and hence by practitioners - as relating solely to "the problem of boys" and their underachievement. This discourse has frequently held misogynist overtones, often blaming girls and female teachers for boys' perceived "failure".
My colleague Chris Skelton and I have recently undertaken various reviews of the literature, including for the Equal Opportunities Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission). We identified a long list of explanations for the gender gap, but the only one based on substantive research evidence is the social constructionist thesis that young people's gender constructions encourage them to adopt particular behaviours, some of which are less conducive to learning, or to identification with particular subject areas, than others. Strategies based on notions of gendered learning styles and innate sex difference lack a basis in research and are shown to be ineffectual by more than a decade of application wherein achievement results have altered very little.
Nevertheless, the policy preoccupation with this issue has driven application of these teaching strategies and curriculum materials (often conceived as "boy-friendly") so that they have been widely adopted in primary and secondary classrooms, often resulting in a range of inequalities. For example, it was found in one Australian secondary school that girls were being allocated to a set below their level so that they could be replaced in higher sets by lower-achieving boys - seen to achieve "gender equitable" streams, and to address classroom management problems in low sets. This practice was branded by researchers as "sacrificial girls".
Research in England has documented a widespread reversion to teaching and management strategies based on gender in English primary classrooms, prioritising the perceived needs of boys. Practices that disappeared in the 1980s, such as lining boys and girls up separately, have made a comeback. Concepts of "gendered learning styles" are rife and applied to teaching practice in spite of a lack of evidence, and in mixed-sex classes such strategies are inevitably applied. As Mr Skelton, Gemma Moss and I illustrated in the Mythbusters booklet published by the Department for Children, School and Families, many of these "boy friendly" strategies are actually detrimental to boys' learning, and encourage the stereotypical productions of gender that contribute to underachievement.
Meanwhile, continuing issues in girls' achievement - for example, the underachievement of white working-class girls and those of African-Caribbean heritage - go ignored. Patterns of difference in classroom and playground experience according to gender remain largely unaltered, though they are frequently overlooked due to the obsessive emphasis on achievement. There continue to be striking gender differences with regard to patterns of subject preference and choice (with implications for post-16 and occupational trajectories). Homophobic harassment remains rife in schools. Crucially, the role of educational institutions in perpetuating gender difference is largely ignored.
The existing strategies to support boys' achievement that are based on "common sense" - stereotypical assumptions about gender difference - risk exacerbating existing inequalities, both in patterns of achievement and in educational experience. The DCSF's own research for its Gender Agenda supported my conclusion with Mr Skelton that "it is in schools where gender constructions are less accentuated that boys tend to do better - and strategies that work to reduce constructions of gender difference are most effective in facilitating boys' achievement".
But there is little evidence yet of changing attitudes in schools. It remains to be seen whether the DCSF's Gender Agenda has any impact in reversing some of the negative trends that have emerged as consequences of the panic over boys. A significant injection of resources would be needed to address the highly challenging and embedded area of gendered behaviours and expectations in schools. Notably there is little space for such discussions in the crammed initial teacher education curriculum. A radical effort will be required if we are serious about increasing gender equality in schools.
Becky Francis, Professor of education, Roehampton University, soon to take up the post of director of education at the RSA.