Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Boys may under-perform but it is women who are under-paid

Girls outperformed boys by 11% in Key Stage 1 (seven year-olds) writing this year.”

It’s that time of year - results from school examinations and other national assessments have been published and newspapers herald the poor communication skills of boys as a national crisis. The Guardian is even hosting a major event this month for secondary headteachers ‘to identify barriers that impede boys’ learning, to work on practical solutions and set future goals to raise attainment.’ My intention is not to dismiss this as a valid topic for discussion. I’m simply saying it isn’t news.

Let’s go back to the dark ages of the 11 plus examination (established by the Butler Act in 1944). That national assessment test was used in the last year of primary education, allegedly to separate out children with academic potential, placing them in grammar schools, while the future hewers of wood and drawers of water were sent to ‘secondary modern’ schools. Because it was well-known even in those days that boys under-performed in the 11-plus, a special quota system for them was established, to ensure that grammar schools were not predominantly populated by girls. In other words, a percentage of the boys who went to grammar school did not merit their place. And a certain percentage of girls who went to secondary modern school were too bright to be there.

The practice was discontinued at a national level by the Labour government in 1974 (although it is still used in a few education authorities today) partly on the grounds that age 11 was too early to determine an individual’s future and that the exam favoured middle class children. The introduction of the comprehensive system also eliminated this 30 year-old practice of discrimination against girls at age 11 – a fact that has largely been overlooked in discussions about education in today’s ‘meritocracy’.

Of course, there is still a tendency for girls to have to teach themselves, especially at secondary school, while their teachers’ attention is taken up by boys’ bad behaviour. And unfortunately in many co-educational classrooms boys tend to undermine the confidence of teenage girls and inhibit them from showing how bright they really are. So girls sit and listen, take note, do their homework, help each other out and apply themselves consistently to coursework tasks throughout the year - rather than taking a mad dash to revise one week before the exams - behaviour which often earns them the epithet of being intellectually unadventurous and ‘not as naturally bright as boys’.

But in all this, the obvious answer to the conundrum of boys’ under-achievement seems to have been ignored. If, for the 60+ post-war years of co-educational statistics, boys continue to under-perform in comparison with girls, could the reason perhaps simply be that boys are not as bright?

‘News’ reports last week on another well-known fact suggest that we don’t need to worry about this because it doesn’t affect their achievement in later life. 30 years on from the Equal Pay Act, women may climb the career ladder faster than men – but are paid nationally 17% less for doing the same job, according to the latest National Management Salary Survey. Frances Gibb and Marcus Leroux in The Times, 5th September disingenuously reveal that 75% of women in the survey viewed qualifications as benefiting their career prospects compared with 66% of men. Of course: women know they have to work harder to get on and even when they are successful, are still under-paid.

So why should we bother about boys’ under-attainment at school when our ‘meritocratic’ society is still stacked in favour of men’s achievement at work?

The Equal Opportunities Commission, in its final report before being merged with other watchdogs into the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights on 1st October, has laid out its gender agenda: all those aspects of continuing sex discrimination in Britain which still require action by the new body.
The integrated human rights commission has potentially the advantage of being able to address the kind of connections between gender, race, class and ability that are not always made by the news reporting of the day.

But the newspaper advertisement I read for three key directors for the commission doesn’t bode well. Even as a linguist and an institutional development consultant, I couldn’t quite decipher the job description for ‘stakeholder relationships’ although I’m perfectly familiar with the concept. Perhaps it was written by one of those men whose communication skills are 11% poorer than mine but whose salary is 17% more.

Read more about the EOC gender agenda.

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