The front page of last weekend’s Sunday Times carries the latest ‘shock-horror’ story about our education system – “UK girls flop in science league”. It cites the influential OECD Pisa Report as showing that British boys are some way ahead of girls in terms of attainment in science by the age of 15. The gender gap is 13 percentage points and places us in the bottom five out of 67 countries. At 12 percentage points, the gender gap in favour of UK boys is similar in mathematics but in this subject we are close to matching the average OECD gap of 11 percentage points.
Shirley Conran, author and Government advisor on girls, is one of a number of outraged ‘celeb’ commentators. She told The Sunday Times:
“Girls’ poor performance in maths and science in UK schools is absolutely because of sexism. Maths and science are a feminist issue. It is a myth that boys are better at them then girls.”
TV science guru Professor Brian Cox laments that too many girls see science as “male dominated and not for them”, thus wasting a “great reservoir of untapped talent”. He does not comment on the fact that this is not an issue in the few all-girls schools that remain.
Ever-clever maths star Carol Vorderman adds that her first job as “vital statistician” on a BBC quiz show “tells you everything about British attitudes to women in science.”
All of this hand wringing would be more convincing if The Sunday Times had not confronted us with a story taking us in the opposite direction just last month. It began:
“Boys should be protected from the classroom domination of girls… as figures reveal girls outstripping boys at every stage of the education system.Boys now lag behind girls at both GCSE and A-level and are much less likely to apply to university.”
What are we to make of two such conflicting stories from the same newspaper? Who, exactly, is being ‘hard done’ by – boys or girls?
A clue, perhaps, is in the final sentence of this new Sunday Times story: “Girls meanwhile outperformed boys by 25 points in reading…”. Whilst this is below the average OECD gap of 35 percentage points, it points to a matter of greater concern than UK girls flopping in science. UK boys are flopping in reading. Why is the failure of boys being presented as of so much less concern?
In contrast to the OECD Pisa test results, our own public exams show boys are doing much less well than girls not just in reading but in science and in all other subjects. Last summer’s GCSE results at the ‘pass’ grades of A*-C was 73.1 per cent for girls and 64.3 per cent for boys. This gap of 8.8 percentage points is the highest since 2003 but has been growing since the first GCSE exams were sat in 1989. A partial explanation of the gap may be found in the coursework component of GCSEs that appears, in general, to suit girls more than boys. It is, now, being phased out of most GCSEs but boys have some catching up to do.
Yes, we really do have a gender gap in education but those who should concern us the most are not the girls.