Bethan Marshall: The feminisation of the school system is a myth

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The Independent Online

We have a male secretary of state for education. The last but one, was Charles Clarke, and there was David Blunkett. Until last week all the heads of Ofsted had been men. The top jobs at the Qualification and Curriculum Authority, the Teacher Development Agency and the National College of School leadership have always been held by men. Even when he wasn't officially working in the department Andrew Adonis was always perceived to be the man who pulled the policy strings in education, enacting his boss's wishes - Tony Blair.

Why, you might ask, do I start with this roll-call of the masculine voice in education? Because, last week Tony Sewell, an education consultant, blamed the gap in the performance between boys and girls on the feminising of school culture. Sewell is no stranger to controversy. A former teacher, he moved to Leeds University's education department, where he became best known for suggesting that Afro-Caribbean culture was largely responsible for black boys underachieving.

Though he is often billed as something of a contrarian, he is, in fact, motivated by a passionate desire to see young black boys achieve their full potential. He does not court controversy for its own sake but to make us re-examine the status quo. His hope is that this will shake us from a complacency that disadvantages young people, all of whom have a right to succeed. The problem is that in so doing he often reinforces other, unhelpful, stereotypes. In this most recent case it is that boys have drive and ambition and that girls are quiet and, if we are honest, slightly dull.

He achieves this damning portrait by characterising the current school system of coursework and general bureaucracy as feminine. This regime, he argues, stifles creativity, problem-solving and risk-taking, and so disadvantages boys. Girls, by implication, do better because they don't mind complying with any task set, however mindless.

I'm not quite sure what annoys me more. The idea that the dead hand of the present male-imposed bureaucracy is feminine or that girls are so dull they don't mind being bored to death. There is nothing girly about paper work, Many of us hate it. And then there are the facts of his argument. Facts are, of course, boy stuff. But he is wrong in his assumption, firstly that school assessment is dominated by coursework and secondly by the idea that if we had more exams boys would do better.

Up to GCSE, all national assessment is done by timed exams and girls do better than boys. This has always been so. Girls consistently outperformed boys in the 11-plus. Thirty years ago this statistic was attributed to the idea that girls matured earlier, a perception that didn't help all those girls unjustly consigned to a secondary modern education in order to keep the ratio of boys and girls in grammar schools even.

Even at GCSE, most subjects only assess around a third of pupils' work by coursework. At A-level the percentage is lower still. There is even some evidence that more coursework might actually help boys' performance. The 1992 Ofsted report, that looked at boys' underachievement in English, suggested that the gap in performance was beginning to be closed by 100-per-cent coursework. Ironically, this type of assessment was abolished in the year that the report came out.

Then there is the idea that boys thrive on competition. Arguably, the system of streaming and setting, commonplace in the secondary sector and encouraged by the Government, is based on a competitive model of performance. Sets are the internal equivalent of league tables and boys languish at the bottom. Far from providing a spur to compete, they discourage ambition, leading too many boys to give up feeling branded as failures.

The truth is that everyone suffers under the current regime - pupils, teachers, boys, girls, men and women. Tony Sewell is right when he says that it stifles creativity but wrong in the conclusions he draws. Girls as well as boys need to be encouraged to be creative and take risks. Once they hit the workplace, where such attributes are at a premium, their salaries fall well below their male counterparts. Teaching girls that diligence will bring its own rewards seriously disadvantages them in later life. As for the teachers - their desire to be innovative and inspiring is too often curtailed by mindfulness of the requirements of the treadmill on which male politicians and policy-makers have placed them. The relentless day-to-day grind of schooling, dominated by the heaviest and most high-stakes testing regime in the West, inspires no one.

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College, London