TES letters

18th July 2014 at 01:00

Differences between the sexes? Show me the science

We should be encouraging as many young people as possible - be they male or female - into Stem careers. Dr Gijsbert Stoet's suggestion that we abandon efforts to attract more girls into these subjects is disappointing ("Gender equality in Stem would `deny human nature' ", 11 July).

A good science education ignites young people's curiosity, develops their questioning and reasoning skills and gives them a greater understanding of the world they live in. There is absolutely no reason that this type of education should benefit only boys and a few interested girls. A mathematically and scientifically literate population of men and women is vital to the UK's future prosperity.

What scientific evidence is there of innate differences between women and men with regard to the subjects they enjoy? When developing a recent Royal Society report, Vision for Science and Mathematics Education, we didn't find any. It is almost impossible to separate the effects of nature and nurture by looking at choices made by teenagers after years of socialising influences.

Professor Dame Julia Higgins
Professor Dame Athene Donald

Psychologist Dr Gijsbert Stoet's claim that innate differences between the sexes make it difficult to attract girls into traditionally male careers completely overlooks the impact that societal influences can have.

CITB, the Construction Industry Training Board, is better placed than most to see how subtle deterrents can put women off particular careers. Gender stereotyping is still alive and well in many sectors, including ours, which is why we are pleased that the industry is addressing these issues through such initiatives as our Be Fair framework.

However, as well as wholesale culture change, it is vital that young people - girls and boys - receive up-to-date information when making choices about their futures. Parents and schools need to understand that jobs, careers and indeed the culture in construction have changed in recent decades and that there are good careers for women with the right qualifications.

Twenty-five years ago, I was told at school that construction was "not a place for women" and we know from research that this is still happening today. Without the initiatives in place to support and encourage women into engineering, I would not have become a civil engineer, nor be where I am today.

Kate Lloyd
Equality and diversity manager, CITB

Phonics is fantastic, so why the hostility?

I have been following the phonics debate in TES and I've noticed that the contributors are mainly academics, not teachers at the coal face. I am one of the latter and a big fan of phonics.

Criticism often assumes that phonics is the sole method of teaching reading in phonics-based settings. This is never true: phonics is perhaps the main element, but it always operates alongside techniques such as guided reading, individual reading and practice of high-frequency words. Indeed, the muchused Letters and Sounds programme emphasises the teaching of words that do not follow the normal phonics "logic".

Phonics always seems to be discussed in terms of reading, but when I see children of all abilities using phonics to plausibly spell some very adventurous words, I know that it is doing a fine job of driving engagement with writing, too.

Alan Marsh ("Phonics fanaticism must be opposed", Letters, 11 July) makes a point about flawed groupings of homophones - I do agree. As a West Country man teaching in the North of England, many of my pronunciations differ from those of the children. However, a good teacher will discuss this with pupils to increase their understanding of sounds and speech.

Sam Napper
Year 1 teacher

Being a phonics fan but not a fanatic, I am well aware that children cannot be taught to read solely through phonics, which is only a means to an end. Children who arrive at school having made a good start in reading never need phonics and most others will learn with minimal use of the strategy. But a small percentage need phonics to bridge the gap between the unfamiliar marks on the page and the meanings of the spoken words they already know. It is unrealistic to suppose that children will intuit the rules of the game just by being read to, although that must also be part of their experience.

Alan Marsh is correct to say in his letter that "air" and "heir" are homophones, but wrong to say that "lessen" and "lesson" aren't, since to the best of my knowledge they are in all accents. Teachers know they have to adapt phonics to such variations and not impose a standardised way of speaking.

Greg Brooks
Emeritus professor of education, University of Sheffield

Build computing skills from the baseline up

Further to your news article "Teachers unready for computing ambitions" (11 July), ICT subject association Naace has launched a baseline-testing and progress-tracking project that has been taken up by more than 10 per cent of secondary schools in less than two months, with more joining every day.

The online exam provides free national testing of computing knowledge and understanding. In addition, we are offering a full set of cloud-based tools for formative assessment, all entirely free for schools and built on open-source software.

Through the test, we will be able to get evidence of what pupils (and teachers) know and understand before and after formal teaching. We will be able to identify nationally weak areas of the knowledge base that underpins computing competence. This is a unique opportunity with a new subject to find out the effect of teaching and teacher learning over time.

Ian Lynch
Naace lead for the computing baseline-testing project

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