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Chris McGovern: Co-ed schools put girls off maths and science


Although girls out-perform boys at school and university, not enough of them are pursuing careers in science and engineering. This is largely down to subject choices at A-Level.

The vast majority of schools are co-ed. The culture in these schools often dissuades girls from choosing the Maths-Physics-Chemistry-Computing pathway. The latest figures (2015) from the Joint Council for Qualifications show that the percentage of female candidates for Computing, Physics, Further Maths and Maths are respectively: 8.5 per cent, 21 per cent, 28 per cent and 39 per cent.

In contrast, the percentages of girls opting forArt/Design, English and French are 76 per cent, 72 per cent and 69 per cent. Only Psychology and Biology A-Levels seem to be acceptable as sciences for most girls. They make up 76 per cent and 61 per cent of candidates, respectively. True, these subject choices may, if accompanied by Maths, leave open a ‘scientific’ career in the medical field but most areas of science and engineering will be closed off.

According to a study of gender equality in schools by the OECD, this gender division in subject choices is not confined to the UK. Amongst 15-year-olds internationally, boys out-perform girls in science and maths among pupils at all ability levels. The report concluded:

“Gender disparities in performance do not stem from innate differences in aptitude, but rather from students’ attitudes towards learning and their behaviour in school, from how they choose to spend their leisure time, and from the confidence they have.”

Interestingly, in Shanghai – top of the OECD’s PISA tables of pupil attainment internationally – girls scored more highly than boys in most other countries, including, of course, the struggling UK.

The OECD blames the relative under-performance of girls in science and mathematics on low expectations among parents and teachers. It also points to a lack of self-confidence amongst girls in solving problems.

So, where do we go from here? Jo Heywood, head teacher of the exclusive Heathfield independent school for girls in Ascot, thinks she has the answer. According to a report in The Sunday Times:

“Heywood, who studied chemistry before going into teaching, said gender-neutral parenting would produce girls confident about entering careers such as science and engineering, traditionally regarded as a man’s world.”

Her remarks come as a survey [by the website] reveals that three out of five parents back the removal of gender labels from clothes and toys by retailers and a quarter want gender-neutral school uniforms.”

Are Jo and “Channelmum” on to something, here, that the rest of us have been missing? Is ‘cross-dressing’, gender neutrality, and the ditching of ‘pink for girls and blue for boys’ going to sort out the lack of girls studying science and engineering?

Since the highest achieving girls in science and maths come from communist China, one might assume that the Chinese are at the top, too, for gender neutrality. It seems, not, however, as this recent piece by Yang Lan for The Global Times makes clear:

“When I was a little girl, I often heard the expression “Women have long hair but short vision” spoken by my father…

Nearly three decades later, I saw this same adage appear in a viral top-10 list of “most unbearable sexist Chinese phrases,” based on a recent poll conducted by the Shanghai Morning Post and Shanghai Women’s Federation, and was reminded of the household sexism that I and countless other Chinese women are raised in.

The sad thing, however, is not the prevalence of sexism that continues in our society, but that most of us, men and women alike, don’t even realise that the things we say are rooted in sexism. I’d like to use this editorial, then, as an opportunity to examine a few of these top-10 remarks, what I call “Stuff Chinese Sexists Say,” that really hit home for me.

“Girls perform better at school because they are better at studying, but they will not be as good as boys when they grow up,” ranks seventh on the list. These all-too-common words reveal that parents do not expect their own daughters to achieve greatness in life. At the schoolgirl age, not many daughters would identify these words as sexism; we subconsciously absorb them and live our lives by them. How many girls, then, never strived to be the best because they followed their parents’ low expectations?”

Since one of the most ‘sexist’ of nations is producing the best results for girls, and not least in terms of science and maths, we should, perhaps, be looking beyond the politically correct agenda to improve our own education system.

Back in 2012 a study by the Institute of Physics showed that 49 per cent of state co-educational schools in England do not send any girls on to study A-Level Physics. Alarming, certainly, but the same study showed that girls were two-and-a-half times more likely to go on to study A-level physics if they came from a girls’ school.

The most effective way of combating gender stereotyping in schools, even in China, may be to provide more single sex education.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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