Tear up these exams or we're going to leave our boys behind
Bahram Bekhradnia: A new report shows that the academic gap between the sexes is growing and risks creating a generation of lost young men
Sunday, 07 June 2009
Boys don't perform as well as girls at school. That is well known. What is less well known is that this continues through university. There are some who think this doesn't matter. At a recent conference on the impact of feminism on higher education, one academic said that the poor performance of boys "is seen as a threat to masculinity. It is a moral panic". I don't agree. Article Continues
Research just published by the Higher Education Policy Institute confirms that on all measures of achievement the difference that begins in school continues into and through university. It's not good enough to dismiss concern as moral panic. We badly need to come to terms with the new realities. If we do not, then the consequences for those involved will be serious, but so too will the consequences for society.
Women have almost reached the government's 50% target for participating in higher education, while men have a long way to go (49.2% against 37.8%).
Some dismiss this as illusory because, they say, females tend to attend less prestigious institutions, or that they attend part time rather than full time and get less good degrees. This isn't true. The rates of participation at Oxford and Cambridge are the same. Also, more women than men enter the Russell Group (the self-selected group of research universities, most with medical schools) and other old universities, as well as attending new universities. There are more full-time women, as well as part-time, and both young and older women have higher participation rates than men.
There are differences in subject patterns, but again, in most subjects women outnumber men. There are some subjects where men are more numerous - for example in computer science, engineering and the physical sciences - but women outnumber men in popular, high-status subjects such as law and medicine. And the relatively poor performance of men occurs throughout society; it's true of middle-class as well as of working-class males and it occurs in all ethnic groups.
Once at university, women are more likely to obtain good degrees and men are more likely to drop out. If they do graduate, men are more likely to be unemployed and in non-graduate jobs, but if they are employed they are, on average, better paid. This last will no doubt be seized on by some to play down the general education disadvantage of males. That would be wrong; the reasons for the lower average salaries of women are complex. No doubt discrimination plays some part, but the subjects studied, the type of employment that women enter, for example the public rather than the private sector, and choices that reflect different values, account for most of the differences.
While the poorer performance of males is a phenomenon common around the world, and nobody has yet discovered the reason why, it appears to be exacerbated in England by the GCSE exam and the teaching that is associated with it. Boys' school performance began to lag behind girls' at around the same time as GCSEs were introduced. Though we need to be careful not to assume automatically, because of that, that there is a causal relationship, it is very difficult to avoid that conclusion.
There is a wealth of evidence that sheds light on this. Among this evidence is the fact that the Programme for International Pupil Assessment exam, administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to children in all of its member states, found that boys in England on average did better than girls in science by a wider margin than in any other country and did at least as well as girls in mathematics; yet a few months later, when the same children took the GCSE exams, girls outperformed boys in the same subjects. Why should that be? That is something that needs to be researched.
It could be because of the importance in GCSE of coursework or the discursive nature of the exam. Or it could be because the new skills that boys acquire through playing computer games are of no value in the GCSE exam. There appears to be something in the GCSE and the preparation for that exam that causes boys to do less well than girls. And that in turn blights their careers and the rest of their lives.
So, boys perform less well than girls at school and then at university. Does that matter? Of course it does. It matters in the same way that 30 years ago it mattered that fewer girls went to university than boys. Graduates, after all, tend to form the elites of society and, as women have come to dominate in higher education, we should expect these elites to change gender over time, too. That itself is no bad thing. What is intolerable is that significant numbers of young (and not so young) people are excluding themselves - or perhaps being excluded because of aspects of our school system - from joining these elites.
The term "moral panic", as used by the professor of education quoted above, is, in fact, regularly used by people wishing to dismiss concern about the poor performance of males in education. Others are dismissive in other ways - the underperformance of boys has, for example, been described as simply "an evolving realisation of the nuances of gender's effects", whatever that might mean. Others are worried that the concern that some express at the position of males is being used to whip up a "backlash against the women's movement".
Perhaps that is true of some, but those of us who celebrate the achievements of the women's movement, despair at the prospect of the emergence of a whole generation of dispossessed and disadvantaged men. We are deeply concerned at the implications for society of an army of under-educated and possibly alienated males. Society gains from a well-educated population, not only in terms of economic development, but in terms also of their better health, better integration into society and better child-rearing, to name but a few of the benefits identified by the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning.
Graduates both inflict and suffer less domestic violence, they vote more and participate more in civil society. And society will suffer as a result of the under-education of increasing numbers of males. Just as we were concerned at the lower achievement of girls a generation ago, we should be concerned at the lower achievement of boys today.
That need not be at the expense of concern for other inequalities faced by both men and women. Discrimination against women in the workplace, as well as the shorter life expectancy of men, should be tackled head-on. They are not helped by the increasing disadvantage of another group in society. One disadvantage should not be taken to justify another. This is not a zero sum game. The suggestion, recorded in a report by the then Department for Education and Skills (but not stated as government policy) that "it could be argued that the widening gender gap does not matter ... if it helps ensure greater equality for women in the labour market" is intolerable, as intolerable as those of the academics who dismiss, even rejoice in, the poor performance of men in higher education. This is a problem that should concern us all. Bahram Bekhradnia is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2009