Education and Gender Differences

Written by A.C. Grayling.

Half-lost in the now predictable August clamour about sex differences in examination results, renewed today by publication of the GCSE results, are old familiar clues, swirling neglected like scraps of paper in the storm around our heads. In one page of the newspaper you read that girls are doing better than boys at A Level and GCSE, in another you read that young women get fewer Firsts at Oxford than young men, in a third you read how much better all pupils perform when segregated into single-sex classes. Putting these observations together directs attention to a pivotal fact about education: that there are gender-specific differences in the way people get most benefit from it.

The single greatest change to the public examinations system in recent years has been the shift of emphasis to course work. It is well understood that course work suits girls, and that their results are much less satisfactory if measured only by sit-down examinations at the end of the period of study. The reverse is true for boys. This explains the rising success rates for girls - and it also explains the fact that they get fewer Firsts than their male contemporaries at Oxford, where the chief measurement of attainment is still the final examination in the last weeks of the degree course.

There are some further complications to this picture. Honest educators will tell you that standards are lower now than they used to be - there is no question about it: they are far lower. Honest parents will tell you how much help they give their sons and daughters with course work, a fact that has a distorting upward effect on grades (but not on actual acquirements, since the pupils have not done all the work themselves) for both boys and girls with helpful parents. The combined effect is felt at universities, where it is no longer possible to make assumptions about what undergraduates share in the way of minimum general intellectual culture and skills.

And it is also likely that the lower standards at schools, and the made-easy approaches to the subjects taught there, are dissatisfying to a significant proportion of pupils, who therefore respond with boredom and indiscipline. Pupils do not always recognise that their problem is that they are under-stretched; instead they see school as uninteresting and unstimulating, and indiscipline is a characteristic response. School has to compete with the much more exciting extra-mural world, with bright razzmatazz television, play-stations on computer, and for older pupils cinema, raves, clubbing, sex and recreational drugs. If education does not seriously attract pupils' interest it is going to take a poor third place to the other multitudinous avocations of growing up.

A solution to the under-stretching problem is streaming, that is, making sure that pupils capable of more challenging work get the chance to do it. Another aspect of the same solution is to have far smaller classes so that pupils genuinely get more individual attention. This well-worn point was allegedly refuted some years ago by publication of a report suggesting that class sizes are not a crucial factor in output success. This is true if the differences are between, say 33 pupils per teacher and 26 pupils per teacher. But one has only to look at the achievement of private schools in getting consistently excellent grades for their pupils to see that their class sizes of 12 or 15 have to be a siginificant factor. That is the kind of ratio public education should be aiming at.

But the larger problem of the gender differences in achievement requires an even more radical approach, which is to recognise that boys and girls need to be assessed differently. A degree of care is needed in working out this idea, for it would create all sorts of difficulties if girls were exclusively assessed by course-work methods and boys exclusively by end-of-year exams. Introducing too great a difference between the sexes in this way would be controversial because what is at stake is selection of various kinds - not least for university places. The solution is that both sexes should be subject to both forms of assessment. A pupil's best marks should then be the ones that determine future progress. If it turned out that girls' best marks generally came from course-work assessment, and boys' generally from end-of-course exams, it would be no surprise; but it would allow for the exceptions, and would retain a basis for comparison across the sexes.

The uselessness of current comparisons between male and female exam results is not only a function of the assessment problem, but is a result also of the fact that mixed-sex classes for adolescents are not invariably a good idea, as many teachers point out. The sexes suffer deficits in learning as a result, with different ways of compensating for them; for when both boys and girls are distracted by the other sex's presence in class, girls are more likely to make up lost ground later in homework, and therefore suffer marginally less from the knock-on effect of inattention in class, which is that since most subjects are learned cumulatively, lacunae in knowledge offered in earlier classes make learning in later classes more difficult.

The problem of mixed-sex classes is almost wholly one that arises in secondary education, and for the obvious adolescent reasons. A yet more radical - and actually rather good - suggestion for eliminating the problems of schooling in adolescence was offered by no less a personage than Winston Churchill. Reflecting on his own experiences as a profoundly unsuccessful schoolboy at Harrow, he suggested that children should learn the Three Rs until puberty strikes, and then should be sent out to work until such time as the hunger and curiosity for knowledge drives them back into education - whereupon they will learn with delight, in much less time, what it now takes us years to get into adolescent heads (if ever we succeed).

His suggestion might be annexed to another, which is that education - wasted on the young, as has often enough been sagely said-should genuinely be a life-time possibility, with people being able to move between work and education, with the support of employers and government, when need and desire arise. Basic literacy and numeracy can be acquired in the wonderful teachable years before puberty; adolescents should be free to choose whether to stay at school or work thereafter; and the schools and university should be open to all who, later, wish to profit from them. Coupled with a sensitivity to the way the sexes best learn, and how they best exhibit what they have learned, the education system could be a better and richer instrument as a result.