Why the girls are on top

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Male under-achievement made headline news again two weeks ago when chief inspector Chris Woodhead described girls' growing dominance across the curriculum as "one of the most disturbing problems we face within the whole education system".

In truth, as Professor Caroline Gipps from London University's Institute of Education and the International Centre for Research on Assessment points out, this growing disparity is a function of girls' success, not boys' failure.

This success is popularly attributed to the introduction of coursework as a major element in exams. Girls, it is suggested, are more diligent, neater, and work more consistently. Therefore they score much better in coursework - which was introduced in 1988 with GCSEs - than boys.

Simple-to-grasp, this account may not, however, be complete. Research from Jannette Elwood at the Institute of Education suggests that other influences, such as the expectations of teachers and pupils, and the content of the syllabuses are likely to play at least as big a part.

She writes: "In English, geography and history, subjects with substantial written coursework, differential performance between girls and boys was greater than for O-level. HoweverI in French which had no compulsory coursework before 1991, girls showed similar performance patterns to those in English."

Coursework cannot be picked out as the sole agent of change; indeed according to Jannette Elwood, it has only a limited effect. Small mark advantages in coursework by girls, she says, tend to be offset by small mark advantages to boys in the exam.

Maths and English provide a dramatic illustration of female progress. Girls improved in maths such that the gap (still in favour of boys) has been reduced to 2 per cent at grades A to C. Boys, however, have made no such gains in English, where they remain 16 per cent behind girls.

Here, she believes that perceptions of the subjects have had a heavy influence. Boys do not rate English as important; girls, however, have been very much encouraged to take maths seriously.

"Some of the old stereotypical perceptions are changing. Teachers say girls are enjoying mathematics more and participating fully in the subject. It is suggested that girls see mathematics in less functional terms and no longer embedded in the same domain. The same cannot be said for boys and English. "

The content of the material also had a part to play. Analysis of GCSE maths papers suggests that they favour neither boys nor girls. Analysis of English papers, however, indicates that "both exams and coursework tended to emphasise those aspects of the subject in which girls are known to be substantially more proficient than boys".

This ties in with new Australian findings that changes in the curriculum generally are playing to girls' strengths. Dr Ken Rowe, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Education, advocates immediate measures both to boost boys' ability in verbal reasoning while ensuring that subjects are presented in a way that boys as well as girls find accessible.

"Undermining Gender Stereotypes: examination and coursework performance in the UK at 16", by Jannette Elwood. Available in the Assessment in Education series from Carfax Publishing, tel: 01235 555335

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