• What are the patterns of achievement for students of different genders?

    What are the patterns of achievement for students of different genders?

    Learning targets:

    • Until the mid 1980s, boys outperformed girls in schools except at eleven plus. This was seen as natural, except by feminists who challenged entrenched racist attitudes.

    • The impact of feminist research changed many attitudes in schools so that there were educational policies that set out to raise the attainment of girls.

    • By the mid 1980s, girls and boys were achieving equally well. Girls are now consistently outperforming boys at all levels and in most subjects.

    • This is a cause for concern by many politicians and media publications so it has become something of a moral panic.

    Key questions

    (AO1) What patterns of attainment on the basis of gender are there?

    (AO1) How are gender patterns of attainment changing?

    (AO2) Are changes to the education system favouring women?

    (AO2) What other social factors may influence gender attainment?

    Summary of key points

    There are significant differences between the genders in terms of the educational success of girls and of boys.

    In the 1960s, boys achieved results that were on average 5% better than girls. Until the mid 1980s, boys out-performed girls at all levels of the education system, with the exception of 11+. Most educational writers read this as being 'proof' that girls were generally less intelligent than boys and that boys were 'late developers'.

    There was little serious challenge to this type of thinking until the 1960s and 1970s when feminists pointed out that the better school performance of boys was not the result of the superiority of male intelligence, but that the educational experiences of boys and girls were very different. A number of studies by feminist writers such as Spender, Deem, Stanworth and Delamont pointed to the sexism of the educational system that they claimed reflected the sexism of everyday life.

    In general, until the 1980s girls were usually offered a curriculum that prepared them for life in the home whereas boys were offered practical subjects such as woodwork and metal work or were encouraged to study academic subjects. Schoolbooks were written with the focus firmly on males. Even the common style of school uniform was masculine clothing of a jacket, shirt and tie, only modified with a skirt for girls. This reinforced the hidden curriculum idea that education and intelligence were masculine. Even as late as 1993, Scrimgeour investigated education with a small sample of Scottish teachers and found considerable bias in favour of males in terms of practice and materials.

    In the mid-1980s, both genders began to improve their school performance significantly. The improvement of girls was more rapid than that for boys. Females are now no longer the gender associated with underachievement. They outperformed boys at every key stage level in 2007 (except Maths KS2). Girls outperformed boys at GCSE in 2007 by 9.1 percentage points. Boys' achievement has been rising alongside girls' since the 1980s; but girls' results have improved more quickly. This has given rise to a moral panic in the newspapers about ‘boys’ failure’. The problem is generally located with working class White boys.

    In English, girls have been moving ahead the fastest at all Key Stages. At GCSE the gender gap is 13.9% with 69.2% of girls getting an A* to C grade compared to only 55.3% of boys in 2007. The importance of an ability in English to support all other subjects is underlined by the clear lead of girls in all GCSE results. The proportion of girls getting five or more passes at grade C or better in 2007 was 66%; the figure for boys was just 57%. A quarter of boys did not earn any A* to C grades. Although there is a gender gap in maths and science, it is not nearly so marked.

    Warrington and Younger (1999) note that the success of girls should be a cause for celebration and congratulation. Instead it is viewed as a 'problem' with concern expressed about how males are 'failing'. There is a danger that by over-focusing upon the new social 'problem' of 'underachieving boys' we ignore the reality which is that the performance of boys as a group has been rising significantly over time.

    In terms of post-16 education, females are staying on in education and attending Higher Education in ever-increasing numbers. This is having a knock-on effect in the workplace as increasing numbers of females with graduate status penetrate areas traditionally considered as male.

    The picture is not equally good for all women; feminists such as Becky Francis (2006) maintain that despite the focus on male under-performance, a high proportion of working-class girls still fail. In addition, they argue that many females fail to achieve their full individual potential or choose to study ‘feminine’ subjects which are less valued than ‘masculine’ subjects. Where females do succeed, feminists feel it is often in spite of the education system, not because of it. Feminists claim that females are still subject to institutional disadvantage in schools. Furthermore, Hartman points out that the attention that is paid to gender differences in achievement is large when compared to the way much larger differences in attainment between the social classes are ignored.

    Traditionally high achieving females have come from middle-class backgrounds. Riddell (1992) found that middle-class girls shared the achievement values of the school and sought the approval of teachers. Working-class girls saw their futures in terms of the local job market combined with motherhood and domesticity. However, Sharpe (1994) found working-class girls' attitudes had changed dramatically in the past 20 years with careers, travel and independence now increasingly valued.

    Such attitudes reflect what Wilkinson (1994) refers to as the 'genderquake' whereby young females are increasingly striving for a fulfilling career with good earning potential. Thus young women are more confident, assertive and ambitious; striving for gender equality. There has been a huge growth in the numbers of women working, with successful career women operating as positive role models. In 2005, figures show nearly double the number of women entering high status careers such as medicine and the law. Working mothers are providing positive role models for their daughters. Fuller (1984) found in her study of black girls in Brent, that girls were motivated not to end up in dead-end jobs like their mothers. Working class unqualified women still tend to be confined to cleaning, caring, catering and cash registers (the four Cs)

    Arnot (2004) found female pupils adopted private learning strategies such as asking teachers questions after the lesson to improve their understanding. Evidence shows that females are more likely to revise more effectively. They do not leave it to the last minute like many male pupils who assume it will be "all right on the day". For males poor examination performance is excused away. They blame external factors such as the quality of their teaching or claim that the wrong exam questions came up. Female students are more likely to blame themselves for poor performance and therefore seem more motivated in their revision and preparation to ensure a successful outcome.

    Crisis of masculinity and laddism

    Writers such as Susan Faludi and Robert Bly suggest male underachievement is linked to a 'crisis of masculinity'. Male pupils, it is argued, are sensing wider changes in society, and the growing opportunities and confidence of females generally. Even before leaving school some males are picking up the message that women do not need men. Such ideas can be very discouraging and it seems to alienate them further into acceptance of failure or brutal 'laddism'. Recent research by Carolyn Jackson suggests that girls are now engaged in similar behaviour which she calls ‘Ladette’ due to the extreme pressure of testing that occurs in modern British schools.

    Aggleton (1987) studied young men from the new professional middle classes and found that some boys distanced themselves from aggressive working class male masculinity. However, they also reject the idea of hard-work and seriousness. Instead, they aim for a male identity of effortless achievement. Clearly, success without effort is very difficult to achieve indeed and many of these boys underperform.

    Salisbury and Jackson (1995) say that there is more than one possible form of masculinity for boys to identify with. Archer says that not all of these are aggressive. Notions of maleness are fluid, so boys will behave differently in differing situations. Male identities are, however, concerned with the creation of hierarchies of power and dominance. Some male identities are seen as having more status than others. As early as the 1970s Willis pointed out that hard working academic achievement among boys was seen, even by some teachers, as being effeminate, low status and undesirable.

    Some males, especially from the working-class, see academic school work as feminine and resist it as undermining their culture of masculinity (Willis, 1979). It simply is not 'cool' to be academically able and can result in being labelled as a 'boffin' or 'geek'. As a consequence they seek alternative anti-school values and adopt 'laddish' attitudes and behaviour (Mac an Ghaill, 1994).

    Gender and single sex education

    Leonard Sax, in the USA, has taken the view proposed by many psychologists that male and female brains are different. He is a strong advocate of single sex education, arguing that lessons should be gender appropriate because boys and girls require different education. Certainly, schools and colleges are now more 'girl-friendly' places. There is some sociological support from writers such as Murphy and Elwood (1998) who argue that teachers are now more sensitive to gender issues facing females. Teaching has become a feminised profession, with fewer men choosing a career in education. There has been considerable INSET on equal opportunities that make teachers address sexist attitudes and practices in schools.

    Many Local Authorities and schools in the 1970s and 1980s experimented with single-sex classes and other initiatives aimed at improving female performance. Experiments at removing boys from the classroom have been found to be particularly helpful to girls in science and maths lessons allowing them more opportunity to answer questions, grow in confidence and develop an interest in the subject.

    There is evidence that girls at single-sex schools out-perform those in coeducation (mixed) schools. Many feminists have argued strongly in favour of single sex education for girls. Research published by the Girls' School Association (2007) showed that girls taught without boys achieve higher grades than those at even the most elite mixed-sex schools. Single sex girls' schools are regularly at the top of school league tables. It is suggested that single-sex schools promote debating skills in girls and lesson content can be tailored to female interests. Curiously, while parents are in favour of single sex education for their daughters, they are reluctant to accept it for their sons.

    There has also been opposition to the view that single sex education favours girls. Alan Smithers has argued that the differences between attainment in single sex schools and coeducational schools can be attributed to social class and intake as single sex schools are now mostly found in the private sector or among faith schools and they can select their pupils.

    Mitsos and Browne (1998) found that in coeducation schools girls worked harder and spent more time on homework, were better organised, and were more likely to meet deadlines than boys. Lyon, et al (2006), found that females were significantly more conscientious in doing homework. Research by Harris et al. (1993) found that boys were more easily distracted in the classroom and less determined to overcome academic difficulties.

    Pupils achieving five or more GCSE grades A*-C or equivalent: by sex

    What should you have in your folder of notes on this topic? (AO1)

    Definitions of the key concepts

    Crisis of masculinity

    Cultural deprivation





    Hidden Curriculum



    Material deprivation


    Independent study


    • Notes from Social Trends on differences in educational attainment between the two genders (perhaps with reference to ethnicity as well as gender)

    • Detailed notes from text books explaining why girls are now the gender of achievement in school. Use ‘A’ level textbooks and the Internet for ideas.

    • Notes on the persistence of gender inequality in the UK taken from the website of the Fawcett Society http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/

    Extension work

    • Find out more about the history of women’s’ education and changes in attitude to the education of girls by talking to women who are older than you about the attitudes that their families had towards their education compared with the education of their brothers or boys in general.

    • Look at newspaper sites and download stories relating the different achievement of boys and girls in school. Add these to your folder of notes.

    • Find out what you can about recent research into differences in the attainment of girls and boys in education. Add notes to your folder.

    Useful websites and sources of information (AO1):

    You should use the website of the NgfL Cymru and look at the ebook to develop your notes


    News stories about gender and attainment include






    Here is a summary of research into improving male attainment in school published by the government


    Estyn (the Inspection body for Wales) has done research into gender attainment and has relevant research findings http://www.estyn.gov.uk/ThematicReports/0308_gender_gap_report_march_2008.pdf

    Numerical data about UK education can be seen at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/Images/UK%20by%20numbers_tcm6-34204.pdf

    Online classroom has an excellent summary of recent research into gender and attainment by Carolyn Jackson (Lads and Ladettes) http://onlineclassroom.tv/files/posts/lads_and_ladettes/document00/p_jackson_article.pdf

    And some original related research data by Jackson can be seen here http://tobermory.cc.strath.ac.uk/erica/module6_reader/unit4/Jackson%20Reading%202.pdf

    1 Comment

    • 1. Apr 12 2012 11:31AM by Kay

      this is amazng, thank you.

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