When girls were delicate things

25th April 2003 at 01:00
SHOULD girls be allowed to follow the same curriculum and take the same exams as boys, or would they buckle under the pressure?

At a time when girls are scoring higher than boys at every level, it seems like a ridiculous question. But in the mid-19th century - when schools had separate entrances and playgrounds for boys and girls - the debate over the gender gap was just beginning.

In a paper discussing the Schools Inquiry Commission of 1868 south of the border, the first systematic comparison of girls' and boys' performance, researcher Michele Cohen relates how public officials tried to understand the "mental differences" between the sexes.

The commission, described by scholars as the "opening of a new epoch" in girls' education, found girls were better at spelling, reading, writing from dictation, mastering facts from history and geography, and at English composition. "They excel in descriptions of characters and events" and "show less mental confusion".

Ms Cohen, who presented her paper to a gender and education conference last weekend, said the commission found itself wrestling with stereotypes.

It found boys to be better at translation, analysis, parsing, arithmetic, algebra and Euclidian geometry. Girls had "a greater readiness to lay hold of facts, greater quickness to acquire, greater eagerness to learn, acuter susceptibility to praise and blame, write with ease and vivacity and have a tendency to adorn rather than strengthen the mind".

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