While girls may have overtaken boys in terms of academic success, disadvantages remain for young people across all social groups and ethnicities. In this blog, Professor Ruth Lupton explores the reasons behind gender disparity, and how Greater Manchester authorities can set a national example.
- We can’t assume that the opportunity gaps for girls have been erased. Boys still dominate in subjects like mathematics and engineering, and in ‘vocational’ courses, young men dominate construction while young women predominate in health and care subjects.
- Greater Manchester’s new Education and Employability Board, which has tasked itself with championing those who are least well served by the education system, should specifically address gender disparities and what it might do about them.
- GMCA can set high-level examples, such as building gender targets into skills strategies and pathways (such as digital and construction skills) and working with suppliers and contractors to help them build links with schools and community groups to meet these targets.
In the English education system, there are significant gender inequalities, but not in the direction we are used to seeing. Up until the mid-1980s, boys enjoyed greater success than girls, but since then the tide has turned. Now girls do better in tests of academic achievement at every stage of education from early primary school to entrance to higher education. They are even ahead in teacher-assessed measures of early childhood development at the end of the reception year (aged 4-5). It’s important to note as well that boys are over-represented among those excluded from school, and not in education, employment and training (NEET) between the ages of 17 and 18. They are more likely than girls to be identified as having special educational needs.
These ‘boy problems’ or ‘girl successes’ are present across all social class groups and ethnicities. But we also need to recognise the multiple advantages or disadvantages that accrue through membership of multiple social/ethnic groups – the phenomenon of ‘intersectionality’. For example, while the ‘gap’ between boys and girls in GCSE attainment (good passes in English and mathematics) in 2018 was around 7 percentage points, the gap between boys eligible for free school meals and from a white British ethnic background and girls not eligible for free school meals from an Indian background was over 50 percentage points.
And we also can’t assume that the opportunity gaps for girls have been erased. Boys still dominate in subjects like mathematics and engineering, ones which have some of the highest returns to graduate earnings. In ‘vocational’ courses, young men dominate construction while young women predominate in health and care subjects.
All of these gaps will be of concern to politicians as they try to increase levels of ‘school readiness’ and ‘life readiness’, close disadvantage gaps, meet skill shortages in high-tech industries as well as revalue work in personal care occupations. Two things may help. One is that all the statistics are widely available. There is no excuse, in education, for not knowing about gender disparities. The other is that Greater Manchester is really no different from the rest of the country. Politicians in Greater Manchester do not need to feel they are playing a game of catch-up, so it is easier to ask the question: could Greater Manchester pave the way in tackling some of these gender disparities, demonstrating success to other areas?
Explanations and actions
This points to two suggestions for action. One is that Greater Manchester’s new Education and Employability Board, which has tasked itself with championing those who are least well served by the education system, should specifically address gender disparities and what it might do about them. The same might also be said for the School Readiness Board and Skills Advisory Panel. There is no reason, given the availability of data, not to keep this issue in view.
The other suggestion relates to what might be done and prioritised. Of course there are many explanations for girls’ greater educational success. Some focus on assessment and modular examinations, which are said to play to girls’ strengths. Some point to changes in the labour market and boys’ occupational identities. Some suggest that more routinised pedagogies and ‘teaching to the test’ positions boys as disruptive, which may position them as failures and increase their disengagement.
Other work asks us to question stereotypes of boys and girls and examine ways in which parents and teachers may reproduce gender differences through their practices. For example, Moss’s ethnographic study of a primary school showed that girls and boys read in different ways. Reading was more of a social activity for girls, while boys who read for pleasure were more likely to do so alone, and depended on family encouragement. Less proficient boy readers chose non-fiction texts more often because they could use images to engage with the texts and demonstrate subject knowledge, while less proficient girl readers might read easier texts with more proficient friends, thus building their reading skills. Moss and Washbrook also demonstrate interesting early differences (at age 3) in ‘pre-literacy’ activities with parents, with girls more likely to be sung to or taught the alphabet than boys.
Making the system work better
None of this will be new to educationalists working with gender issues, and the examples here give just a flavour of the large volume of research on this topic. There are no doubt multiple examples across Greater Manchester of creative solutions developed by individual teachers, school leaders, and early years professionals, whether these involve de-gendering classrooms, challenging assumptions, changing curriculum materials, bringing in role models, changing careers advice, arranging work placements, and working with parents and community groups to address gendered practices and expectations.
As is often the case, finding ways to capture and exchange these ideas is likely to be the key to change. As Professor Mel Ainscow, former head of the Greater Manchester Challenge and now Chair of Greater Manchester’s Education and Employability Board, has argued in his book Towards self-improving school systems, we need to be able to “move knowledge around” in an increasingly fragmented system. But GMCA can also set high-level examples, for example, building gender targets into skills strategies and pathways (such as digital and construction skills) and working with suppliers and contractors to help them build links with schools and community groups to help meet these.