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Girls are brighter than boys - but let's try to forget that

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Once again, girls have out-performed boys at GCSE. This, apparently, is a 'cause for concern.' By whom? Well, by men, of course.

I'm sorry; that was a cheap jibe. But then like all women of my age I spent the first 30 years of my life being subjected to cheap jibes about women's intellectual abilities.

I do have some background in all this. During my gap year, I spent 6 months working as a number cruncher for an educational research team on two significant longitudinal studies. It was quite a revelation to me when I discovered that the raw scores in IQ and other tests were standardised by gender.

Throughout primary school girls performed, on average, better than boys - in other words, the mean score was significantly higher for girls. Raw scores on these tests were then mapped for each gender on to a normal distribution with a mean of 100. So the mean score for a girl was standardised to 100, as was the mean score for a boy, even though the girl's raw score was actually higher. This was done with the best of intentions but had the effect of masking the higher performance of girls.

The population at large genuinely didn't know that girls scored higher than boys. The popular view was that boys were brighter.

One of the consequences of this was that a girl had to achieve a higher score than a boy in the 11+ in order to get a place in a grammar school. And that was significant at a time when most pupils who did not get into grammar schools left school at 15 with no opportunity to gain any qualifications at all. That gender disparity is still true today; girls have to reach a higher threshold score than boys to get into the two Tiffin schools in Kingston.

In spite of the differential at primary school, once they got to secondary school boys tended to surge ahead and did better than girls at O levels (which were not standardised by gender) . Educational studies showed that girls continued to be brighter than boys at secondary school, but their performance at 16 did not reflect that. Oddly enough, this was never a 'cause for concern'.

Comprehensive schools were created in order to give everyone a chance of reaching their full potential, so you might have expected them to redress the imbalance. But they didn't. Boys still outperformed girls in most subjects, except English, at 16. What was going on?

In the late 1960s I started my teaching career in a mixed comprehensive in Peckham and began to understand the social pressure on girls to perform less well than their male classmates. Their performance dropped off just at the point when they wanted to attract the attention of the alpha males in their social groups.

Undoubtedly the expectations of teachers and parents had an impact too. I remembered when I was a pupil myself at a girls' grammar school, and a number of my friends were not allowed by their parents to stay on to the sixth form because of the prevailing view that it was not worth keeping girls in education. Others were sidetracked into so-called secretarial courses in shorthand, typing and filing, or encouraged to take the traditional paths into nursing or primary school teaching, neither of which required A levels at that time. Of the 60 girls in my year (in a grammar school, remember), only four of us went on to University. Expectations were low, and we know that children live up, or down, to the expectations that parents and teachers have of them.

When I started to complain about the underachievement of girls - which I continued to do when I was lecturing in Education at what is now Roehampton University - I was, as you might have guessed, treated dismissively.

Gradually, though, values changed, particularly in girls' schools, where young women could be encouraged to achieve academically without the pressure to play dumb in front of the boys. This became very marked in Kingston where in the 1980s and 1990s, under outstanding female headteachers, the students in Tolworth Girls and Coombe Girls were obtaining GCSE results which were substantially above those in the boys' schools.

Over the last 30 years girls across the country have found confidence, raised their expectations and reached their potential. This is something to celebrate.

And yet, predictably, the pundits complain that boys are in some way being penalised or discriminated against. Some even suggest that we need to change teaching methods to ones that overtly favour boys. That is patronising nonsense. Good teaching takes into account the personalities and learning styles of all the pupils in a class, and works with and around cultural, social and gender differences. Good teachers have expectations of individual pupils based on their knowledge of their abilities and interests, not on their gender, race or social class.

Oh, and talking of race ... try substituting black children for girls and white children for boys in my comments about expectations in this post, and another truth may emerge.


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