Attainment: Closing the gender gap

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
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In response to the question above 'So why was there no gender gap prior to 1988?'There was but it ...

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What should we be doing about the achievement gap between girls and boys? School leader Caroline Sherwood discusses the impact that gender stereotyping can have and the challenges faced by schools and teachers

There has been a long-standing gender gap at GCSE for those attaining five-plus A* to C grades: since 1988, on this threshold measure, a significant gender gap in favour of girls has emerged.

This gap has grown over time and, in individual school settings, fluctuates. The national picture for 2015/16 revealed that boys underperformed compared to girls in every key stage 4 attainment measure – Attainment 8, English element, Mathematics element, and EBacc element.

The multifarious research on gender suggests that, as classroom practitioners, we should be differentiating our teaching to satisfy the demands of gender differences.

And long before we found ourselves teaching, we have been exposed to the idea of gender differences, which exist and thrive in society: gender stereotypes proliferate in the media that we are exposed to everyday from a young age: advertising, films, television, blogs, books and magazines.

Being a fraternal twin, I often heard well-intentioned platitudes about girls’ prettiness, sweetness and politeness, while my brother was excused for being boisterous, loud and unruly.

Climbing trees with my brother and returning home with brambles in my hair and muddy dungarees made me a “tomboy”. I remember even then thinking it odd that enjoying these pastimes made me more of a boy than a girl.

Now, I recognise that my behaviour did not conform with what society decides is feminine – in fact, society deemed my behaviour to be masculine. I did not meet societal expectations. The term tomboy, although undoubtedly used affectionately, reinforces gender stereotypes and is harmful.

Boys and girls assemble constructions of gender based on what they are exposed to – so that they “fit” social norms. These gender constructions include giving preference to particular behaviours, interests, and school subjects while shunning or avoiding others (Gender Issues in School: What works to improve achievement for boys and girls, DCSF, 2009). The behaviours pupils – and teachers – choose because of this gender construction have an impact on achievement.

It is commonly believed that structural and functional differences in female and male brains profoundly affect human learning. For example, Michele Hanson, the author and Guardian writer, said in 2011: “We have already been told that girls like a cosy, intimate, safe environment, boys like a big, brutish, perilous one; girls like to sit still, write neatly and work, without having to raise their hands, in a smallish, contained area, for an hour at a time, and like to relate the Fibonacci series to the bracts on a pine-cone; boys like to jump around, throw their pine-cones about, spread their equipment widely, and only work in short half-hour chunks; girls like a quietly spoken, friendly teacher on first-name terms; boys like a strict shouter, roaring “hands up”, who avoids direct eye-contact.”

However, recent studies suggest it is the environment that we create for our children that has the greatest impact on the way they learn and what they learn. As classroom practitioners this is reassuring: we can make a difference.

In The Biology of Belief, Bruce H Lipton explores our genetic make-up and the belief that it is far more mutable than previously thought. Lipton suggests that the environment we live in, the experiences we have and the choices we make about our environment, behaviour and thoughts determine what gets switched on or off, or indeed constructed, in our DNA.

It is not simply a case of being at the mercy of our genetics – or, significantly, being limited by our gender. Our cognitive ability, personality, interests and preferences are not only determined by our gender – rather our response, consciously or subconsciously, to the environment – including the gender stereotypes we are exposed to. It seems nature and nurture help shape us, an interaction which biologists refer to as epigenetic.

As classroom practitioners, we understand that children are not always armed, as we are, with the critical tools to analyse, challenge or scrutinise information – what is presented to children by adults as fact, is often absorbed as irrefutable and incontestable.

We must not pass on our inherited assumptions to our pupils. Children’s brains are significantly more pliable and malleable than adults’ brains, which means that what happens on a daily basis in your classroom is shaping your pupils’ brains and ultimately their futures.

Challenging preconceptions

In Pink Brain, Blue Brain (2012), Lise Eliot explores the differences between boys and girls, sifting through assumptions to conclude that the differences are not as considerable as perhaps previously thought.

She states: “The reality, judging by current research, is that the brains of boys and girls are more similar than their well-described behavioural differences would indicate. Certainly, there are some data showing subtle sex differences ... but overall, boys’ and girls’ brains are remarkably alike. Just as boys’ and girls’ bodies start out more androgynous than they end up in adulthood, their brains appear to be less sexually differentiated than adult men’s and women’s.”

These gender differences, which we might have previously been convinced by, will be making their way into our classrooms. For example...

Boys and girls learn differently

The belief that boys are right-brain dominant and girls are left-brain dominant, that girls’ brains are wired for communication, whereas boys’ brains are wired for aggression are ideas we need to move away from because they are not verified by substantial research.

There is little evidence to suggest that neurological differences beget distinct abilities, preferences or manners of learning in boys or girls. In fact, research has questioned the validity of learning styles (Coffield et al, 2004), and in addition to this, studies have been unable to find any concrete links between gender and learning style.

We have to move away from thinking that girls prefer working independently and boys prefer group work or vice-versa. If there is a preference, it is likely a result of social norms. Our role in the classroom is to ensure we offer broad and varied learning approaches, challenging gender assumptions and certainly not strengthening them. Welcome moments in your classroom when your pupils are out of their comfort zone and be explicit about it: “You might not be used to learning in this way, so it might feel hard, but that means you’re learning and your brain is working hard for you.”

Ultimately, teaching boys and girls as though they are discrete groups will fail to meet the needs of many boys and girls (Gender and Education Mythbusters: Addressing gender and achievement – myths and realities, DCSF, 2009).

Boys just don’t work hard enough

If you asked your colleagues why boys’ achievement is lower than girls’ – what would be their response? Poor work ethic? They just don’t want it as much? Expectations result in realities. The reality is that unyielding gender role expectations limit our pupils from their potential and from future opportunities.

In Teach Like A Champion, Doug Lemov states: “One consistent finding of academic research is that high expectations are the most reliable driver of high student achievement, even in students who do not have a history of successful achievement.”

Talk explicitly with your pupils in terms of rigour, determination, dedication and scholarship because the higher the expectations you have of your pupils, the better they will perform. The opposite of this (the Pygmalion Effect) is the Golem Effect – if we expect our pupils to perform badly, they will. We must believe, whole-heartedly, that gender does not determine how well someone will do at school. Use language deliberately and carefully to share your high expectations with all your pupils:

  • I’m glad you’re finding this challenging – it means you are learning.
  • I’m really pleased with the progress we/you are making, so I’ve set the bar high for this lesson.
  • I’ve planned a really challenging lesson for us/you today, but I know we’ll all reach the goal.
  • Make sure you communicate your progress with me so I can stretch and challenge you further.
  • I’d expect you to make mistakes during this task – your mistakes will help you learn.
  • How can you make changes/additions to improve your original performance?

Lemov suggests that “a sequence that begins with a student unable to answer a question should end with the student answering that question as often as possible”.

It is a series of seemingly insignificant moments and choices, which, if made deliberately and purposefully, make a difference in your classroom: not accepting “I don’t know” as an answer, asking “how” and “why”, recognising and praising effort and persistence, valuing your own and your pupils’ mistakes.

Boys like competition. Girls don’t

Social constructions of gender encourage boys to be competitive and for girls to dislike it. If we operate under this assumption, do we deny girls the opportunity to compete and consequently strengthen this gender construction?

Such constructions also involve a dislike and fear of “losing” unless managed very carefully. The concern is that the boys who fail to “win” academically may disengage.

“The current pattern of boys’ attainment, with a longer tail of underachievement developing behind those boys who are high achievers, suggest that the difficulties lie with motivating those who do not immediately succeed in order that they may engage with purposeful learning.” (Gender and Education Mythbusters: Addressing gender and achievement – myths and realities, DCSF, 2009).

Psychologists Claude Steele, Joshua Aronson, and Steven Spencer recognise that group stereotypes can threaten how pupils evaluate themselves, which then alters academic identity and intellectual performance (Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement Gap, American Psychological Association, 2006) – known as the Stereotype Threat. Planning discrete activities for different genders could potentially disadvantage your pupils.

A determined and deliberate approach in your classroom married with a whole-school approach to challenging gender cultures will make a difference. Remember: “It’s in schools where gender constructions are less accentuated that boys tend to do better” (Francis and Skelton, 2008).

  • Caroline Sherwood teaches English at South Molton Community College in Devon, is Pupil Premium champion and teaching and learning lead. Caroline is also a Specialist Leader in Education with the Dartmoor Teaching School Alliance and is project director for Women Leaders in Education in the South West.

Further information

  • Gender Issues in School: What works to improve achievement for boys and girls, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2009:
  • Should We Be Using Learning Styles? Coffield et al, Learning and Skills Research Centre, 2004:
  • Gender and Education Mythbusters: Addressing gender and achievement – myths and realities, Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2009:
  • Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement Gap, American Psychological Association, 2006:

In response to the question above 'So why was there no gender gap prior to 1988?'There was but it was girls that were not achieving as well as boys (apart from at the 11+ which was considered due to boys' biological immaturity). This version of the gender gap was not perceived as problematic and boys' greater achievement was explained as being the result of their natural higher levels of intelligence in comparison to girls'. There was no panic about schools failing girls and very little strategy, if any, to address what was after all perceived as a natural difference.
So whilst I may agree with some of the comments of The Realist regarding homes and schools working together, I think his/her perception of the past being one of no gender gap in achievement is empirically flawed.

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Research has got us no further forward in 30 years as one after another theories has been successively blown out of the water. It is blindingly obvious why boys are under performing at school today being a relatively bad lad in a secondary modern in the sixties myself, but eventually doing well due to strong parental discipline and support. So why was there no gender gap prior to 1988? Shouldn't we be focusing on what was working then? If afraid the answer is an uncomfortable truth that I have already alluded to. Social changes have moved us from school centered to child centered education that doesn't work for boys in general. The flood of testosterone in boys' bodies in the early years of secondary education makes them disruptive and difficult to teach which can only be combated by strong discipline and support both at home and at school. This discipline and support has steadily broken down over the last 30 years. Unfortunately there are no easy answers and I believe that only a social revolution will reverse this problem.
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I endorse much of what Caroline has said. One issue is to be clear that it is not all boys and establishing 'which boys?' is important. My doctoral thesis was focused on the gender gap. The boys where there was a statistically significant difference in the case studies I undertook were those who were high attaining or potentially high attaining. The outcome of my work was that an essentialist construction of gender, along gender stereotypical lines was hindering learner success and attainment.
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