You are here


Teacher: '... as I told his father, he's not really got any friends in our group. Because he's not like Norman, who's the acting one, and he's not like Sebastian who's the public school type. He is just a nice quiet ordinary sort of lad. In the back row, I'm afraid, the boys have got their own group of friends. One of them is a rugger player, and the other two stick pretty closely together. He doesn't seem to fit. And the rest are girls.'

It might be useful to consider explanations of gender differences in educational attainment in terms of:

1. Genetic explanations:

Are these differences the result of natural aptitudes? Certain test results indicate systematic sex differences. For example, in many western societies, boys tend to lag behind girls in verbal proficiency, and girls behind boys in terms of visual-spatial perception. However, published data tends to exaggerate the differences and even those differences that have been established are not, in themselves, sufficient to account for the divergence in educational and occupational destinies of males and females. There is, in addition, a fair degree of overlap between the sexes in terms of these differences, and measures of proficiency may well be the result of different training received by boys and girls. For example, studies have shown that the spatial abilities of girls can be greatly improved with appropriate training. New 'right' ideologies as suggested by Scruton (1989) suggest that the biological and natural instincts of the sexes determine a particular sexual division of labour and that these arrangements are a 'natural necessity'.

2. Outside school explanations (socialisation; employment opportunities and Patriarchy):

From the late 19th century, one of the enduring characteristics of British education is that it has always been possible to observe a variety of educational experiences that are aimed at a particular gender. As regards girls, a wish that working class girls, in particular sought devote themselves to being wives and mothers resulted in a curriculum that sought to achieve that aim. As late as 1963, when 30% of married women were in paid employment, the Newsom Report still characterised marriage as girls' 'most important vocational concern'. Statistics have continued to show that policies for gender-differentiated education continue to be reflected in the sexual distribution of attainment, although the picture is now more complex.

3. Inside school explanations (hidden curriculum):

One persistent difficulty in assessing gender, and other inequalities, is that they tend to focus on academically successful pupils, so that those pupils not in the high-flying academic streams get ignored. This means ignoring the experience of the majority of pupils.

We do know, for example, that during the 1980s girls overtook boys in some areas; a higher proportion of girls now attempt GCSEs, and fewer of the female candidates fail. Girls are increasingly more likely than boys to attain one or two passes at A level. But these pupils are a minority. The majority of girls leave school doubly handicapped by class position and gender, without marketable qualifications, and end up combining poorly paid work with child and home-care responsibilities. Furthermore, there may be fewer opportunities for women to upgrade or learn new skills.

In terms of future careers not all school subjects are the same, and it has been in those subject areas that are most crucial to future career development that girls have been most underrepresented. These are not surprisingly areas such as Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Technology. These differences are reproduced in gender differentiation in higher education.

Inside school explanations

It also seems that many pupils leave school with their expectations of the traditional sexual division of labour intact. Many boys emerge from full-time education apparently unaware of familial and housekeeping responsibilities.

Experiences outside school must impinge on the hopes and expectations for students' futures. Girls have teenage magazines, films and TV all geared to direct them into specific avenues. Shaw (1977) suggests that for girls, the prospect of marriage 'discourages long-term planning', and that this can account for the way that, in the past, the performance of girls lagged behind that of boys after the age of 16. The suggestion is that the prospect of marriage interferes with educational commitment.

Sharpe (1976) suggests that by the time a girl sees a career advisor their conception of a 'suitable' career - women's employment - is already firmly established. The restricted lifestyles of mothers, sisters and friends depresses their own ambitions, and directs them towards marriage and motherhood. However, Connell (1986) argues that feminism has helped to bring about radical changes in the ways girls perceive themselves, so that they no longer construct their identity in mainly domestic terms. Riddell (1992) argues that schoolgirls had a dual notion of their futures, linking their subject choices at school to the local labour market (especially working class girls) whilst also accepting that motherhood and domesticity were important parts of their identity as women.

Sharpe also highlights one of the important failures of school. Girls are seldom exposed to literature 'that deals comprehensively with aspects of their own lives'. Bisseret (1979) affirms the importance of historical forces on girls that shut down on many possibilities. She traces how class and gender enter into the way that we constitute our identities and histories.

The realities of impending marriage, family and the need to make a living are always pressing for recognition. Images about what girls are and what they might be are integral elements in girls' decisions about their future. The educational process sustains sexual divisions by teaching girls how to be women. If education prepares working class pupils for subordinate positions through the processes of correspondence and reproduction, so too does it prepare girls to cede priority to males. Education produces women who can reproduce the labour force in two ways; by having and bringing up children, and by themselves taking subordinate, part-time, badly paid, labour intensive jobs.

Another limitation on the educational advance of girls, particularly working class girls, is lack of finance, particularly that required to support children after compulsory schooling. Certainly, the past several reports have indicated that academically able working class girls left school earlier than their male counterparts. Nor do schools necessarily provide the same education for boys and girls from the same socio-economic background. Boys from independent schools do very well in terms of occupying elite occupational positions, but girls from the same background are sometimes simply groomed to attract rich men.


In addition to any formal curricula differences (non-existent now?) imposed on girls and boys, there is a marked divergence between them in choices for options and careers. Women are clustered in the Arts, Languages and Social Sciences, males in Sciences, Mathematics and Technical subjects. This pattern is more marked in co-educational schools where pupil options tend to be more sex stereotyped than in single sex establishments.

Arnot (1991) argued that the introduction of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, with its emphasis on gender equality actually did little to achieve gender equality. She suggests that, given a free choice, girls and boys tend to respond according to society's views of what is proper for each gender. The solution for Arnot is greater compulsion in schools to ensure a common experience. Eileen Byrne's (1978) proposal for a core curriculum including science, maths, English and languages, and preparation for parenthood may be the most practical long term solution for ensuring that all young people leave school with adequate grounding for later life.

Extreme specialisation along gender lines appears to be encouraged, first by certain time-tabling practices. The way that schools block timetables make certain combinations of subjects impossible. Further, in some schools, the choice of a particular option, for example metalwork, might be open to all pupils who had studied woodwork, where only the boys had the opportunity to do woodwork. Quite apart from this, even given a completely free choice, it might not be an easy one to make. It takes courage and support for a boy or girl to choose a subject not traditionally associated with their gender (less apparent now?). And subject choice is not all; who gets selected to comfort younger pupils or to make tea for visitors? Why do girls' games have less prestige than boys games?

Apart from the fact that different subjects are sometimes provided for boys and girls, the teaching of the same subject to boys and girls in mixed schools can, nevertheless, have the effect of reproducing gender divisions. At the most obvious level this may happen when pupils are divided into groups on the basis of sex. The 1975 report on curricular differentiation noted that 98% of co-educational schools segregate boys and girls for some aspects of their work; this was usually justified by head-teachers on the grounds of organisational efficiency.

Inside school explanations

When boys and girls are taught in mixed classes the style of teaching may incline pupils to believe that the subject is more appropriate for one sex than another.

Kelly (1974) suggests that both boys and girls do come to share the view that certain branches of science - chemistry, physics, electronics - are more suitable for men. In addition Wolpe (1977) argues that the examples that are used by teachers in an effort to make subjects relevant to everyday life, all too often relate mathematical as well as scientific technique to activities such as map-reading, calculation of crop yields and aeronautics - with which boys can more readily identify than girls.

Feminist analysis of literature, of art, of history, of the social sciences, for example, have revealed the remarkable extent to which these disciplines incorporate untenable sexist assumptions and biases. Additionally, there is the question of the medium in which teaching and learning proceeds. Language can very easily convey the idea that men, and only men, are the initiators, the creators, the active agents. The effect of word usage such as the term 'man' to mean humans is to filter out the recognition of women's participation in major areas of life.

Differential reactions to male and female are a part of everyday life. Parents praise daughters for being pretty, and sons for being brave. Research in the USA suggests that pre-school and primary teachers believe their pupils to conform closely to gender stereotypes. It seems likely that where teachers hold such expectations that they may heighten any differences that do exist.

Girls became noticeable as educational achievers during the 1990s. The evidence emerged firstly from the results for GCSE exams and then for A level results.

There are three main interpretations of these findings:

  1. Boys are falling behind.
  2. Social policy aiding females.
  3. Changing attitudes.

Barber (1994) suggests that males have developed less positive attitudes to education than have females. It has been suggested that males are more reluctant to read (Panorama 1994).

Girls into Science and Technology

Girls into Science and Technology (GIST) was designed to encourage female students to do science. Single sex class? have been claimed to be successful in raising the achievements of girls. The introduction of coursework is the consistent and conscientious work characteristic of females.

There has been an increase in the employment opportunities for women, and a change in social attitudes.

S-cool exclusive!!