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In the early 1990s came the first indications that the imbalance between male and female achievement was changing. The evidence for this emerged firstly from the results of the GCSE examination and then from Advanced Level results. These showed that the gap between male and female attainment was widening in the favour of females in arts and humanities subjects, and in the sciences the traditional advantage of males over females was narrowing. Possible interpretations for this are as follows: firstly that boys are simply falling behind, secondly, it could now be that social policy is in fact aiding females and thirdly, that attitudes are beginning to change within the education system and females are beginning to exploit their new found equality.
The interpretation that boys are falling behind suggests that it is not just that females are achieving better than before, but that there is a problem with boys and education that has not yet been fully explored by sociologists. The reasons given for this falling behind are varied, but according to Barber (1994) they are connected to males developing much less positive attitudes to education than females. This negative attitude is manifested in a number of ways, including lower work rates among male students and signs of disaffection, such as increased truancy and behaviour problems among male students. It is also suggested that male peer groups tend to develop less favourable attitudes towards education and this creates peer group pressure. In 1994 Panorama (BBC 1, 24 October) drew on American research to show that parents spend less time reading and discussing books with their sons than with their daughters. It was suggested that this could be linked to reluctance among males to read and their poorer standards of literacy. This view has been influential in persuading some educationalists that any agenda for equal opportunities initiatives needs to address male underachievement as much as that of females. However feminists would argue that this explanation tends to play down the real progress being made by female students and to divert attention back to boys.
Males are certainly falling behind females in respect of trailing exam results, but it is not the only contributing factor. The interpretation that social policy is now aiding females suggests that a number of policy changes have been effective in encouraging female students to achieve in those areas where they have traditionally done poorly. The first initiative was GIST (Girls in to Science and Technology), which was designed to encourage female students to opt for science and technology. This included such initiatives as arranging visits from female scientists to act as positive role models, developing curriculum materials that reflected female interests, non-sexist careers advice and the raising to teachers' consciousness if gender role stereotyping. However critics of this explanation suggest that it is difficult to pin down a general increase in female standards to this particular initiative, as GIST was fairly narrow in scope and affected only a few selected schools. Nor were these policies necessarily always followed through because they were expensive to implement.
Another initiative that has been claimed to be successful is the introduction of single-sex classes. This builds on the arguments of in favour of single-sex schools. Female-only classes provide positive role models, as, for example, the science teacher too has to be female. In science lessons, having no boys in the class removes the domination of laboratory equipment by boys and also female students to answer questions and follow their interests. The positive outcomes of female-only classes are said to be an increase in female confidence and a more positive attitude towards science. Critics of this approach argue that female-only classes do not guarantee that teachers' attitudes are changed or that sexist materials such as text portraying women in dependent or administrative roles are not used. As with GIST this approach has only been adopted by a few schools as it is relatively expensive to implement. It would also be difficult to find females who are actually qualified to teach traditionally "male" subjects, for example the amount of females qualified to teach woodwork is limited, thus making single sex schools on a larger scale almost impossible unless subjects such as woodwork were dropped from the studied curriculum.
It could also be that single sex classes are detrimental to male educational attainment. It is true that there are no girls there for "boys to show off in front of" or "endeavour to impress" which may enable males to be more focused on the task at hand. However, a single sex male class may fuel an anti-school subculture and enhance peer group pressure on a much larger scale.
Some boys' may gain "street cred" and peer group status from not working. These boys may create sub-cultures in some schools which are both anti-education and anti-learning. Their members may well see school work as "uncool" and "unmasculine" in particular reading may be considered as boring, feminine and to be avoided at all costs. This may explain why boys are less conscientious and lack the application for coursework skills.
The introduction of GCSE, as opposed to O level and GCE, is argued to have favoured females. The principles behind GCSE are that students should be able to show what they 'know, understand and can do'. In order to achieve this, coursework has been introduced as a prominent feature of GCSE courses. This component is said to favour the consistent and conscientious work that is characteristic of female students. Similarly the increased emphasis on oral assessment is supposed to favour female skills. Also, the widespread introduction of joint Science GCSE's has led to increased performance among females as their strong biology orientation has pulled up their general grade in science. However the effect of these innovations is likely to limited. For example coursework marks are limited in GCSE, so there are clear constraints on the amount of benefit female students can be said to gain. Nor is it clear that female students possess the attributes given to them, such as working consistently harder than males. There is for example a clear link between class and females' attitude towards school work.
The outside school view of changing attitudes suggests that female attitudes towards education and work have changed significantly. This is partly because more young women have rallied to the feminist call for gender equality and partly because of the employment opportunities available to them. Thus it is claimed that women are now more independent minded and ambitious, and with their higher expectations they are less likely to want to marry and start a family at a young age - education, work and career have become a new focus of gender identity (Sharpe, 1994). Wilkinson (1994) also shows that employment has taken over from starting a family as the main aim of young women, and that this shift in social attitudes is having a strong bearing on educational aspirations and performance.
However it is important not to overestimate the degree of change in attitudes. Sharpe (1994) indicates that many of the females in her 1990s study, like those in the 1970s research, anticipated life as a 'dual worker', combining paid employment and domestic responsibilities. Sharpe also acknowledges that the desire to gain educational qualifications may partly reflect females' recognition of the fragility of the labour market in a period of recession.
It should also be highlighted that the increased employment opportunities are less impressive than at first sight. It may be that the 'glass ceiling' has been lifted slightly, so that women are found in significant numbers in middle-management positions, but females are still underrepresented in the top echelons of management and overrepresented in the dead-end part time work they have traditionally dominated. This lack of gender equality is recognised by Sharpe (1994), and she sees it as potentially denting the expectations and aspirations of females in the 1990s.
The type of relationship that the student has with their teachers has considerable bearing on exam results. Teachers have different ideas about the type of behaviour that is consistent with the pupil's role. Similarly, pupils have conflicting views about what makes an ideal teacher. Some pupils are unable to live up to the model of the ideal pupil held by their teacher. As a result it may lead to new patterns of behaviour, which influence their levels of attainment. A considerable amount of research has been carried out into how teachers make sense of, and respond to behaviour of their pupils. In his book 'Outsiders' Howard Becker puts forward his labelling theory of behaviour. His theory suggests that the classifying of behaviour by teachers leads to labels being attached to pupils. This classification will then affect what will eventually happen to the pupil. And thus will lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy. Ball for instance in 1986 found that teachers' labels had affected their performance. Whilst Licht and Dwect that boys are more often criticised by their teachers and therefore develop negative feelings towards schooling. However in a direct contradiction of the findings of Licht and Dwect, research has provided some evidence that teachers are not as critical with boys as with girls. They may have lower expectations of boys, expecting work to be late, rushed and untidy and expect boys' to be more disruptive. Some research suggests that boys are less positively influenced than girls or even turned off by primary school environments which are female dominated and may have an emphasis on neatness or tidiness.
Relationships between females and their teachers are generally better than those enjoyed by the males and their teachers. (Abraham, 1995) One reason for this is that a higher percentage of girls than boys share the values of the teacher. Gay Randall, 1987 noted that teachers had more contact time with girls than with boys.
If a poor relationship is observed between a teacher and pupil, it could be a result that the pupil could end up in a poor set. Research shows that some underachieve because they were placed in the wrong set. There was very little difference between the sexes on this issue. Some students thought they had been unfairly placed into the wrong sets. As David Hardgrave's has pointed out, the set that someone is in will influence teacher expectations. This in turn will influence performance. Students believed that there were moral behavioural problems in the lower sets. This was more of a problem for boys as their peer group more influenced them Bly, 1996
The set a pupil is placed in can sometimes be altered at parent's request, which demonstrates that educational attainment and relationship with parents are linked. J.W. Douglas' work The Home and School reveals that parents have considerable influence over the academic performance of their children in school. This pioneering research has been confirmed by plenty of other sociologists, in the 1970's Berthoud, 1976, Swift 1977, Mackinnon, 1978. Divorce, as other research, shows can severely curtail academic performance.
In some families, females may be the primary bread winners. Consequently, traditional masculine roles are under threat. Working class boys' perception of this may influence their motivation and ambition. They may feel that qualifications are a waste of time because there are only limited opportunities in the job market. They may not see any point therefore in working hard in school
A disrupted home will inevitably interfere with a pupil's 'home study'. Home study is important to educational attainment and is something that seems to favour girls McRobbie, 1976 Girls are more likely to work harder and do more revision as they feel they have something to aim for. There is also considerable evidence available that suggests that there is a connection between homework and educational attainment evaluation. A recent study provides evidence that girls spend more time on homework than boys, thus achieving and earning higher grades in exams.
Boys, principally from working class backgrounds, may be experiencing low self esteem and poor motivation which has having an adverse effect on their educational performance. Research by Harris et al in 1993 into the attitudes of 16-year-olds from predominantly working class backgrounds towards schoolwork, homework and careers confirms that many boys are achieving below their potential. It was found that girls tended to be more hard-working and better motivated than boys, whilst boys were more easily distracted in the classroom and less determined to overcome academic difficulties. Overall, girls were prepared to work consistently to meet coursework deadlines, whereas boys had difficulty on organising their time.
There was a greater readiness among girls to do school work at home and spend more time on homework than boys. When thinking about the future, the young women recognised the need to gain qualifications, for lives, which would involve paid employment as well as domestic responsibilities. Generally, the males has not given much thought to their futures and seemed fairly unconcerned about their poor school performance.
The authors relate their findings to the gender 'regimes', which the young people encounter in their homes and communities. Some of the girls, exposed to the image of women as organiser, responsible for home and family and wage earning, displayed similar characteristics themselves, i.e. being highly organised with school work and homework. Harris et al argue that the dominant stereotype of the male in the working class community they examined was highly macho. Typically, this was characterised by a disregard for authority of organisational structures and an enjoyment of the active company of other males. Some boys were already fulfilling such a stereotype in their approach to school, showing little regard for working steadily and dissociating themselves with formal requirements.
It is not the case that males are now the disadvantaged sex in education, it is simply the case that females are making better use of their new found equality and exploiting the anti-school subculture adopted by their male counterparts.