Following the publication of GCSE results this year a Guardian newspaper headline (25 August 2006 p14) read ‘Boys narrow gender gap’.
Explain more fully the nature of the ‘gender gap’ in examination results. To what extent should it be considered a problem?
Compulsory education is a requirement set by law, in which all individuals aged from the age of 6-14 must receive. Due to compulsory education being an obligation set by the state, it is down to those in power to see that all of society can afford to place their children within it. There is a prominent notion when looking at the concept of education, this notion being gender. Gender is determined by an individual’s actions concerning their sex, allowing them to be perceived as masculine or feminine, this in turn has been seen to have an effect upon the subjects taken by adolescents within secondary school and indeed the quality of work achieved by male and female students within subjects labelled ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, this can be identified as a ‘gender gap’, this being a difference in the attitudes and achievements of males and females. Therefore, throughout this essay, I shall look education and the subject choices made my male and female students, and whether socialisation affects the choices made. I also intend to focus on the achievement within examination results, these aspects will allow me to decipher whether the notion of the ‘gender gap’ is a problem within education.
Education is an aspect of secondary socialisation; it allows an individual to gain further knowledge in how to act within wider society, this can be referred to as the Hidden Curriculum:
The hidden curriculum consists of those things pupils
learn through the experience of attending school rather
than the stated educational objectives of such institutions.
(Haralambos 1991: )
Education reflects the needs of economy, and therefore teaches its pupils what they believe will enhance society, this in turn begins the gender classification in the sense that education teaches subjects they believe each gender should study, for example; boys should study technology in order to achieve jobs based on manual labour, and girls should study subjects such as home economics in order to gain knowledge that will prepare them for their role as housewife, and mother. This suggests that the economy is more inclined to help the males within society omitting the needs and potential of females in achieving a career. This also suggests that education socialises its pupils into accepting gender roles expected by society, by doing this they may not question what could be interpreted as inequalities.
Primary socialisation can also be seen to affect the gender gap within education. Parental opinions and beliefs are the first encounter in which children learn what society views as acceptable, in this instance it allows individuals to learn what is expected of their gender. It can be noted that some parents and families often project different attitudes to boys and girls concerning education. In the case of girls, parents tend to spend time with them allowing her to read aloud, or participate in educational based games, such as number tasks. However, in the case of boys, parents are more likely to allow them to participate in leisure based activities such as playing with toys or playing active games such as sport.
This can be interpreted that an education is vital to be achieved for a girl, however this contradict society’s traditional teachings that a female is expected to stay within the home and rear a family, acting as the emotional and physical support. With an education, a girl is likely to realise her own potential and wish to break out of her stereotyped boundary, seeking a career. For boys, sport establishes their masculinity, therefore it appears to be important for parents to behave in a masculine manner as well as participate in areas that can help secure this image:
…It was clear that sport played a central and pivotal role
in the development of a particular masculinist, masculinising,
and hetrosexualised macho culture…
(Martino and Frank 2006)
This ‘macho’ behaviour can be used as a further example in explaining the gender gap within education:
Teachers believe that male results are suffering because
they are subjected to a “laddish” culture which regards
academic success as uncool.
This suggests that male pupils are not reaching their full academic potential due to the influence of peer pressure, and takes a ‘poor boys’ stance on the matter. In order to fit in amongst their peers, a “laddish” behaviour needs to be exercised, and education needs to be dismissed. The recognition of “laddish behaviour within education by the media formed discourses to refer to boy’s underachievement, ‘poor boys’ is just one, this means that the males are ‘disempowered victims’ (Francis 1999), this particular discourse blames the female pupils around them for their failure. Due to media involvement within this arena, a moral panic was created concerning the educational failure of boys, therefore girls are forgotten, they are not highly praised for achieving, and problems that they may face are not acknowledged due to the emphasis resting in the boy’s underachievement:
…This attention to males may divert attention from the
continuing problems and discrimination that females face
However, despite the negativity concerning the issues concerning the gender gap, it has been noted that the gap has indeed reduced in academic achievement and subject choice:
The introduction of the National Curriculum as a standardized
compulsory set of subjects and the GCSE as a common
examination has played a key role in reducing the sex
segregation of subjects…
(Arnot, David and Weiner 1999:18)
In 1994, although gender differences were still present within subjects such as physics, design and technology, and economics, boys did not tend to dominate such areas as physics and technology as much. Subjects such as English, mathematics, and history become far more balanced with participation from boys and girls. Although boys were criticised before, they have now been praised for their efforts in working to close the gender gap, especially within GCSE achievement:
Unlike at A-level-where girls are steaming ahead
of the boys…at GCSE, boys narrowed the gap,
particularly at the higher grades.
However, it has been suggested that the closure between the gender gap within education is due to subject choices selected by male and female pupils. It is evident that pupils are opting to participate in subjects that are outside of the ‘traditional band’ often labelled as easy subjects in order to get higher marks. Due to the increase within subjects such as media studies, participation within subjects including modern foreign languages and physics decreased.
This insight into subject choice has proved a concern for employers within society, qualifications within English and mathematics are an important aspect for an individual to gain a job, and without these qualifications a large number of job vacancies are present within the world of work. However, despite these concerns an improvement in grade achievement was witnessed within both subjects, English moved from 60.9% last year to 61.6%, and mathematics increased from 53.4% to 54.3%. Although an increase was found it has been stated that ‘these margins were still less than those for all subjects’ (Smithers 2006:14). ‘All subjects’ include the newly favoured subjects such as media studies.
The Government has a large impact within education, it deciphers what is taught, how subjects should be approached and the money provided to ensure that schooling can be achieved by all. However, governmental input has been criticised, and it has been suggested that for GCSE results to rise, contribution by the government needs to increase. Richard Lambert commented on this subject and described it as a ‘sad indictment of a system which is failing to deliver these vital skills’ (Smithers 2006:14).
Despite some individuals seeing that the government should improve in what they do in order for pupil’s to achieve higher grades within their GCSE’s, others would disagree Alan Johnson states that: ‘no government has done more to improve attainment…Today’s GCSE results are evidence of the continuing standards in our schools’ (Smithers:2006:14). The mixed opinion surrounding governmental participation needs to be addressed thoroughly, the gender gap would be more likely to close if the government and school authorities focused upon society’s variables and the significance that they played in girls and boys educational achievement, for example class, and culture.
The gender gap is not simply found within compulsory education, it is also identified within further education. The terminology used to describe the gender gap, suggests a battle between the sexes, the desire to achieve intensifies, resulting in a further close within the gender gap, Owen (2002) states that ‘women are racing ahead of men in the battle to secure the most first-class degrees…’. This presents the idea that women want to achieve a qualification that has only been achievable for them since 1920 within universities, due to this tradition men achieved higher academic achievements, although the ‘competition’ between men and women attending university has closed the gender gap even more, this is evident through this extract:
Traditionally, men have always secured more firsts: six
Years ago they led by 1,800. By 1999 their lead was down
300, and in 2000 the two sexes were neck and neck.
The terminology found within this statement not only emphasises the ‘battle’ between men and women in achieving degrees, it also suggests that a race is being conducted, in order to see which gender closes the gap that has been present within education. To close the gap signifies greater academic achievement.
The gender gap is found within all stages of education, be it primary, secondary, or further education due to the various stages of socialisation that an individual comes into contact with. Expectations are being asked of the pupils regarding their gender, due to the belief that the individual will benefit from such segregation within education, preparing them for adult life in which they abide by the traditions of society in which men are to go out to work in order to support their family, and women, to support their husband and family emotionally. This presents the idea that an education is more beneficial to a man than it is for a woman. However, due to society becoming less reliant upon gender traditions, the causes concerning the gender gap need to be addressed intensively in order to allow equal levels of achievement by both sexes and decrease the level of competition.
The behaviour of boys has been mentioned a vast amount when concerning the gender gap, it becomes clear that boys are unwilling to display their full potential within the academic arena due to the belief that showing an interest in achieving will deduce the masculinity they possess. The ‘laddish’ behaviour of boys in schools has been amplified through media intervention; the media therefore, merely highlight the negative aspects surrounding the gender gap but do not comment on how the issue can be tackled.
Due to the media allowing a bias overview to be presented, the public are unlikely to acknowledge the truth that not all boys within education achieve low grades and not all girls achieve high grades, this stereotype needs to be challenged in order for this gap to be reduced. Taking into account teaching methods may also help to reduce the gender gap within education, it has been thought of that some boys lack concentration within the classroom. Therefore catering for their needs in achievement may reduce their struggle; for example using visual aids and a more practical method of learning. The concept of the gender gap is not a problem in itself; the real problem is a lack of intervention in stopping it.