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Over the past decade, educational policy has been concerned about a perceived 'gender gap' in achievement and has specifically focused on whether boys are under achieving academically and to what extent. There are many educational policies and interventions that have looked at how to make boys succeed, as well as improving their attitudes towards school. However recently, the government has begun to focus on strategies or ways of closing the achievement gap, but have they made a difference and are they strategies that just focus on boys or are they inclusive to girls too?
The DfES report on 'Gender and education: the evidence on pupils' in England' suggests that boys underachieve because "girls and boys tend to use different styles of learning and respond differently to the materials and tasks given to them." (2007b: p.101) The interest in learning styles has increased at a rapid pace in recent years and not all of the interest has been positive. People such as Coffield et al (2004) questions the use and reliability of learning styles and believes that many of them could be potentially damaging if they led to students being labelled as a particular learner. Even Gurian (2002) who wrote a book called 'Boys and Girls Learn Differently' believes that every child has different ways of learning within their own gender as well as different genders. Letts also agrees believing that the problem with this claim is "that it tends to treat 'males' and 'females' as relatively unified and coherent groups, overlooking the variety that exists within each of these categories." (2001: p. 263) People like Francis et al (2004) also think that the supposed gender differences in learning styles are either non-existent or superficial. Within each class there will be a wide variety of learning styles and teachers should be conscious of children's ideal methods of learning, but these should not be categorised into boys and girls learning styles. This will lead to the emphasis and reinforcement of traditional stereotypes of boys and girls as separate learners.
Yet according to Duffy (2003) it is the alleged differences in the learning styles of boys and girls that lead to the gender gap in achievement. Arnot et al (1998) also believe that it is these learning styles, which explain why boys and girls are attracted to different subjects. For example they believe that girls prefer the humanities subjects because they require context to their learning and questions that require more detailed responses, where as boys prefer the science subjects because they prefer giving short responses and memorising information and facts. If this is the case, should single-sex classes be encouraged and/or should teachers develop strategies, which cater for these different learning styles?
According to the DfES "the "jury is still out" on the impact of single sex schooling on educational attainment." (2007b: p. 8) The research into the usefulness of single-sex classes offers differing evidence. The positive argument from people such as Sukhnandan et al is that single-sex classes offer:
A practical way of targeting boys without jeopardising girls' performance; an opportunity to improve boys' perceptions regarding 'feminine' subjects like English; an opportunity to enhance girls' competence in 'masculine' subjects like science and the possibility of challenging the anti-learning subculture among boys. (2000: p. 2)
However Warrington and Younger (2001) have shown that teachers are utilising the same strategies and practices in both single sex and mixed sex classes, therefore is this really going to be beneficial? According to Askew and Ross (2001) they are not beneficial. They state that boys will not be concentrating on their work as when they are not 'distracted' by the presence of girls they will be equally, if not more, distracted by an all male peer group. Sukhnandan et al also say that "in single-sex classes boys and girls missed out on one another's approaches to learning, perspective and opinions and some all-boy classes were very demanding in terms of behaviour management." (2000: p. 3) However, the DfES have carried out research and found some evidence to suggest that attending single sex schools has an effect on the attitudes of pupils towards different subjects. They say: "Boys and girls attending single sex schools are less likely to hold gender-stereotypical views about science subjects compared to pupils attending co-educational schools." (2007b: p. 8)
Sometimes the underachievement of boys is blamed on the 'feminisation of schools' (Pollack, 1998) But what exactly is meant by this? This can refer to the daily routines and teaching strategies being more directed at girls, the female teachers having lower expectations of boy's or underestimating the ability of boys and sometimes this has referred to the majority of teachers in primary schools being female. Skelton et al say: "Women primary teachers do outnumber men by roughly five to one." (2007: p.13). The government believe that the amount of female teachers in primary schools is harmful to boy's education, so they are trying to encourage more males to become primary teachers to rectify this. One of the reasons the government believe this will be effective is to provide children with a male role model, which will replace the 'laddish' behaviour as they will be able to see how to behave properly. Tinklin et al say:
Respondents expressed concern about the lack of male role models in primary schools. The gender imbalance was seen as exacerbating problems for those boys who did not have appropriate male role models within their own families. It was also seen as having implications for behavioural problems, and, in some cases, unwillingness by boys to accept the authority of female teachers (2001, p. 110)
Although there may be a claim that having more male teachers in the profession will allow pupils to see that teaching can also be for men and give them more positive role models, there is no evidence that the gender of the teacher influences how pupils of either sex perform or that it improves boys' engagement with school. Carrington et al say: "matching teachers and students by gender (or ethnicity) has little discernible impact on educational achievement." (2007, p. 398) Studies have revealed that children do not tend to be concerned about the gender of their teacher but more with their ability as a teacher and how much they care for their students. Lahelma (2000) says: "students tend to value teachers who-regardless of gender-are able to maintain discipline in the classroom in a friendly, sensitive and impartial manner." (Quoted in Carrington et al, 2008: p.398)
Sometimes the dominance of females in primary school is also said to lead to delivery, assessment and the classroom organisation being more feminine. This includes women teachers' supposedly favouring group work and using non-competitive teaching and learning styles. Skelton says: "the primary school and primary teaching is 'female' biased in terms of the construction of the work force, its general structure and its organisation." (2002: p. 78) There is also a belief that assessment procedures are gender biased and that coursework favours girls where as examinations favour boys. However the DCSF (2009a) believe that this is a myth and the reality is that even with the implementation of new assessment practices, which reduced the amount of coursework, the gender achievement patterns have not being affected. The DCSF also believe that "to be fair to both boys and girls it is likely a wide variety of assessment modes should be used so that pupils have opportunities to produce their best performance." (2011: p. 4)
Another reason for the gender gap as suggested by the DfES is that "boys are more likely to be influenced by their male peer group which might devalue schoolwork and so put them at odds with academic achievement." (2007b: p. 7) Usually when teachers give children a choice of whom they want to work with or sit with they usually sit with their friends, who tend to be of the same gender. Lees (1992) shows how pupils sometimes copy the gendered behaviour of their peers and how they often feel under pressure to conform to these behaviours. Lees (1992) also believes that boys construction of behaviour is almost 'anti' academic as they think it is not 'cool' to work hard or achieve at school, which in turn hampers their achievement. Some believe that boys tend to have 'low self-esteem' but this is highly debated. Davison and Edwards note that: "â€¦ boys have an overconfidence in their own ability and a willingness to blame others, particularly teachers, for their failureâ€¦" (1998, p. 129) Likewise, Ryder believes that when it comes to their work, boys have a "notorious and ill-judged optimism". (1998, p. 145) On the other hand, Terry and Terry say that: "It seems that more boys in our schools opt out of the academic race through fear of failure." (1998, p. 110) Furthermore, Bleach argues that boys tend to hold back in asking questions or participating in class discussions to avoid being made fun of by their peers. This is why he believes they "lie low and avoid attention" (1998: p. 48). Yet Howe (1997) carried out an observational study within a classroom and discovered that boys asked more questions than girls and tended to try to grab the attention of the class teacher on a regular basis.
Should the key approach to raising the achievement of boys and producing gender equality be tackling these gender stereotypes within the classroom? The DfES (2007b) believe that teachers are failing in raising the achievement of boys because they are unknowingly encouraging these divides and stereotypes. Enabling pupils to broaden their views means placing less rather than more attention on the differences between 'boys' and 'girls'. Teachers are not always conscious of their gender differentiated classroom practices: research has shown, for example, that teachers do not often realise that they are spending disproportionate amounts of attention on boys. An observational study by Spender (1982) showed how even teachers making a conscious effort to give more classroom attention to girls were still spending substantially more time with boys. The ways in which we talk to boys and talk to girls could also be different. This also refers to the disciplining of boys as Younger and Warrington (1996) found that many boys feel rightly or wrongly targeted or 'picked on' by teachers where as girls escape punishment for similar offences. This would alienate them from school; however Francis found that "for the most part, boys are told off more than girls because they tend to be louder, more overtly disruptive and to draw attention to themselves more than do the majority of girls." (2000: p. 137)
Some say designing a 'boy-friendly' curriculum will increase boys' motivation and aid their achievement. In other words tailoring the curriculum to suit the needs and preferred learning activities of boys. However the DfES (2002) report concludes that the schools where girls and boys achieved highly had high expectations of all children and had not designed a curriculum that was 'boy-friendly', so this is contradictory. They also offered plenty of choices to the children and catered for their interests. Schools that try to cater for the needs of boys by introducing a 'boy-friendly' curriculum have not made much difference to the achievement of boys and are reinforcing gender stereotypes. The DCSF say:
It is true that since the 1980s girls as a group have performed much better in science and maths subjects, and are now more likely to stay on to further and higher education. The main reasons for this are girls having equal access to the curriculum and the end to subject specialisation at 14 with the introduction of the National Curriculum. (2009a: p. 3)
Therefore by designing a 'boy-friendly' curriculum it is reinforcing these gender stereotypes by showing that only some activities and behaviours are suitable for different genders, which will cause an inequality towards girls and cause them to become disengaged with the curriculum. As the DfES say "There is not a case for boy-friendly pedagogies - pedagogies which appeal to and engage boys are equally girl-friendly." (2007b: p. 7)
A raft of recommended reasons as listed above have been produced in policy documents to help teachers understand why boys are underachieving and how they can introduce pedagogies to raise the achievement of boys (e.g. QCA, 1998; Ofsted, 2003a; 2003b; DfES, 2003). On the other hand, as shown above, the reasons suggested are questionable and highly debated. Francis and Skelton (2005) also feel that some strategies are thoroughly counterproductive. Current policy does realise, however, that the reality of the current situation is that it is not just boys who are underperforming. Many boys achieve highly, and conversely many girls underperform across different subjects. There are also many other factors that effective the achievement of children more than just gender, such as ethnicity and social class. The DCSF say:
Some groups of boys achieve highly at school and some groups of girls do not, it is also important to know that achievement gaps for social class and ethnicity are often wider than those for gender, and it is the interplay of these factors that together impact on the performance of girls as well as boys. (2009b: p. 3)
Therefore this needs to be considered when trying to address the underachievement of children in the future.