Why do girls get better results?

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Can the feminisation of the curriculum really be credited with skewing the system? Wendy Berliner reports

Girls, it seems, can't get it right. If they have exam success, they are characterised as industrious over-achievers. If boys fall behind in the results stakes, they are characterised as victims of a curriculum and assessment system that has become feminised.

Coursework which benefits the typically conscientious girl more than a boy flying by the seat of his pants, is scorned by those who believe the education pendulum has swung too far in the attempt to correct past gender inequalities.

The increasing feminisation of the teaching force is blamed for producing a feminine bias in the classroom which benefits the girls and works against the boys. But how true is this? Is a creeping feminisation of education really playing its part in the spectacular increase in exam success that girls have seen during the past 20 years? And is it contributing towards the relatively poorer performance of boys?

Professor Jannette Elwood, in the graduate school of education at Queen's university, Belfast, is outraged by any suggestion that girls are doing well because of a system that is unfairly skewed towards them. For one thing, she says, research has shown that coursework does not affect boys' overall grades adversely.

For another, although women would have played a part in the formulation of the national curriculum, they would not have led its development, in much the same way as they are still a minority in the leadership of the academic community.

"And there is no research to show that because more women are teaching, that equates with a feminisation of the curriculum or pedagogy. It's outrageous and insulting to women in education to say that they can't be good teachers of boys. It is also insulting to girls to say that they are only doing well because of a feminised exam system."

But Dr Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute in London, does think the system has been feminised, to the detriment of boys, mainly through the introduction of coursework and modular exams. "And you could say it was about time for a change, because the old system discriminated against girls," he says. "Any girl who got through the old system had to be really remarkable because the system didn't play to girls' strengths.

"But, over the years, the curriculum and exams system have been changed and girls now feel more comfortable within it than boys. It helps the working habits and strengths of girls who work in a much more systematic way than boys who tend to follow high risk strategies and take a chance by swotting it all up on the day. It's hardly surprising girls are doing better and there is an element of justice in that. It would be churlish to object to the changes that have been made."

In his view there should be a choice of exam boards which offer examination and assessmenttechniques which might be boy-friendly - everything resting on the terminal exam mode - or girl-friendly - continuous assessment, coursework and modular patterns of work and examination.

But Professor Elwood points to evidence from her own research that people blamed girls for being good at learning since long before the national curriculum was introduced in 1988 and GCSE in 1989. Boys' apparent under-achievement is not a recent phenomenon and progress by girls has not occurred overnight.

The reluctance to acknowledge their ability is not new. In the past, girls were seen as hard-working, not clever. "It was generally accepted that boys, especially at adolescence, went through a time of healthy idleness and girls were much more conscientious about their schooling.

"Girls' success, due not to their brilliance, but to their hard work, was generally not seen to threaten boys' potential but to allow space for boys' achievement."

What worries her is that those views are still around today. In research she carried out among A-level teachers she found that they believed that girls were more industrious and were more likely to praise boys for taking chances with their work.

Girls are now ahead on every subject but the sciences at GCSE, and boys are only ahead in those by a whisker. Girls took the pass rate lead at A-level four years ago. They also get more A grades at A-level. They outnumber boys at university and are catching up with the number of first-class degrees awarded. Boys are progressing but still lagging behind.

In the face of this, government-led initiatives have seen schools adopt boy-friendly strategies in the classroom - such as changing teaching styles, sitting girls beside boys to encourage them to stay on task, or to have single gender classes in mixed schools to encourage boys to focus.

But are strategies designed to help boys penalising girls? Certainly research carried out by Madeleine Arnot and Diane Reay suggests girls are, at the very least, noticing them. Diane Reay, professor of sociology of education at the institute for policy studies in education at London Metropolitan university, says that in their study girls talked about masculinised teaching styles such as "short snappy activities and little quizzes" which had been introduced to appeal to the boys in the class.

"Girls were very vocal in saying that pedagogy had been changed to keep boys' attention," she says. Madeleine Arnot, reader in sociology of education at the University of Cambridge, says we know very little about what is happening within the school curriculum in gender terms because there is no longer the same research into curriculum content as before the national curriculum.

We do know, however, that before the national curriculum girls were offered a study programme which reflected the view that most of them would be based primarily in the home rather than in the workplace. It was only with the introduction of the national curriculum that girls had the opportunity to access the same subjects as boys, rather than being siphoned off into domestic science.

Arnot's research suggests that the reasons for the success of girls as they compete with boys in academic subjects is the result not of a feminised curriculum but partly of the way they learn. Girls appear to be more flexible learners, able to work with different types of teaching and assessment.

This, plus a cultural shift in which girls have been pushed to have higher expectations and be more autonomous, was bound to have an effect on performance.

Arnot believes boys want to do well too and she favours work which looks at how boys can be masculine in a school context.

The idea of trying to understand masculinity in education would be no bad thing. We have come much further in understanding femininity in education since the 19th century when the first women were allowed to take a university matriculation exam. Then the exam had to be modified to take account of the strain that intellectual endeavour was supposed to put on the female mind.

The examiners were so worried, women had to be chaperoned during the exam and served regular drinks. Buckets of cold water had to be available in case any of them fainted. There is only one record of a bucket ever being used.

Perhaps it is time we stopped looking for excuses in the education system and took time to understand boys better too, rather than throwing cold water over girls' achievements.


Middleton technology school in Manchester is that miraculous thing, a school in a white working-class area where 67 per cent of pupils get at least five A*-Cs at GCSE. In 1991, when Pam Coward took over as head, it was 9 per cent. Now it has one of the highest value-added scores in the country.

It is also a school where girls do well and boys do not lag behind and yet everyone is taught in the same way. That is the key, according to Coward, who has been made a Dame because of her outstanding success at the school.

Everyone gets teacher-led, fast-paced, challenging classes. The boys enjoy it and so do the girls. Uniform, attendance and punctuality are strictly enforced. Truancy is below both the local and national rates.

Coward has no time for gender-based labels which suggest some forms of teaching and assessment benefit one sex over the other. "We never set out here to meet the needs of boys. It was an equal opportunities issue to do with class. Whether they are girls or boys they enjoy the fact they do well. They know they are expected to be very focused and that what they do here improves their life chances."

Boys are encouraged to develop forms of working that girls like, such as collaboration, which benefit their learning.

"It's about determining what makes a successful learner," says Coward.

"Girls tend to be good learners and make more use of it than boys."

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