There is a perception that in today’s schools the glittering prizes are going overwhelmingly to girls; and this seems to be provoking a bit of a backlash. MP Karl McCartney, thinks that boys are increasingly disadvantaged in a school system that has become over-feminised. "Boys," he says, "have suffered because it is fashionable to favour girls. Boys need to be taught that it’s OK to be masculine."
Before we rally to the call to apply the brakes to the gender revolution, we should ask whether girls are really favoured by our education system, and is that the cause of some boys’ underachievement?
There is a gender gap in achievement, with girls dominating high grades and university places. In terms of exam attainment, to be sure, the biggest structural concern must be with white working-class boys. But not everything about education favours females. Boys are overrepresented at the bottom of the grade distribution, but in many assessments they also prevail at the very highest grade.
This holds true in higher education. At the University of Cambridge, it has long been a concern that the interview process and the supervision style typically favours males, to the extent that some colleges have considered introducing single-sex supervisions.
For decades, the essay format in humanities subjects has seemed to privilege assertion and argument (the role of the advocate) over the balanced presentation of contrasting perspectives (the role of the judge). In physics, a recent report suggests that males dominate first class awards partly as a consequence of the open-ended question style.
When we look beyond exam results, it is not at all self-evident that education favours girls. Girls face specific issues around self-image and peer pressure at school, and many routinely suffer from gender-based bullying and its online amplification. Girlguiding found that girls’ confidence erodes noticeably with age. Research by Oxford University’s Careers Service found that sixth form girls were less confident than boys about their ability to land a good job.
That lack of confidence appears to be well-founded. Girls’ success at school has not reduced the gender imbalance in progression to the top of careers. Men continue to outstrip women in terms of salaries and representation at the top of management structures. Decades of female over-achievement in academic terms have not resulted in any substantial closure of what has been called the ‘confidence gap’ between men and women.
In the context of persistent gender disparities in career trajectories and incomes, recent gains by females in the academic sphere have been said by some to constitute a ‘stalled gender revolution’.
The two imperatives of re-engaging currently disaffected boys and of ensuring equity for girls should not be set against each other.
Lynsey Hanley describes how, when she was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, gender stereotyping (by society, teachers and peers) set underachieving working-class boys in opposition to school, while casting girls in a compliant, supportive, mediating role. These stereotypes have persisted, and both have proved damaging in their different ways.
Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1
Are you interested in learning about how teachers can develop classroom strategies that start to address these issues? The GDST have partnered with FutureLearn, one of the world’s biggest MOOC (massive open online course) providers, to produce a free online teacher CPD course. ‘Girls’ Education: teaching strategies that develop resilience, confidence and collaboration’ starts on 21st November and you can sign up or find out more here.