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When girls were delicate things

Worries about the gender gap in academic performance are nothing new. George Wright looks back to 1868

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. And the issue of whether girls were too delicate for exams was one that gripped educationists.

In a paper discussing the Schools Inquiry Commission of 1868, the first official and systematic comparison of girls' and boys' school 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 than boys 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 about events", says the commission.

It found boys were better than girls at translation, analysis, parsing, arithmetic, algebra and Euclidian geometry. Differences in performance were related to "characteristic mental differences" between the sexes.

Girls, the commissioners observed, have "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".

Boys, on the other hand, have "a tendency to abstract principles, greater retentiveness, greater inductive faculties, write with vigour and precision and are content to retail information derived from books, or describe the process of some branch of manufacture".

Ms Cohen, who presented her paper to the Gender and Education Conference last weekend, said that the commission had found itself wrestling with stereotypes that defined the thinking of the time.

On the one hand, it believed exams were harmful to girls because of their more "excitable" and "sensitive" constitutions.

However, it also defied mainstream opinion at the time by concluding that there were no intellectual differences between girls and boys which justified their following different curricula.

Ms Cohen, professor of humanities at the Richmond American International University in London, said the commission paved the way for the expansion of girls' education and the Girls' Public Day School Trust, which was set up in 1872 and helped found a number of high schools for girls.

However, she said progress was hampered by "constraints and concerns" inherited from late 18th-century thought. While the commission found that girls' performance was equal to or above that of boys, it said girls'

education was characterised by "slovenliness and showy superficiality".

This reflected the view held by many academics that feminine ambition should be limited to the domestic sphere.

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