How girls rose to the university challenge

Girls are now obtaining more first-class degrees than boys. Are they just more single-minded, or do boys suffer from a laddish culture that holds them back?
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Women are hot stuff at all levels of the educational system. The news that they have finally broken through the ultimate barrier and are gaining more first-class degrees than men has provoked strong reaction. Women, of course, knew it would happen - that they would gain supremacy and annoy men into the bargain. As Ann Kettle, dean of arts at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, puts it: "Women work harder and are being rewarded."

Women are hot stuff at all levels of the educational system. The news that they have finally broken through the ultimate barrier and are gaining more first-class degrees than men has provoked strong reaction. Women, of course, knew it would happen - that they would gain supremacy and annoy men into the bargain. As Ann Kettle, dean of arts at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, puts it: "Women work harder and are being rewarded."

For the past 30 years women have been playing catch-up with men. Although girls always performed better than boys at the 11-plus, they did not do as well at O-levels. Since GCSEs replaced O-levels, however, girls' performance has surpassed that of boys. Then last summer, for the first time, girls began to outperform boys at A-level, gaining more A grades than boys. And so it came to pass that women smashed through the final barrier in figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency last week, with 11,000 of them achieving firsts last year as against 10,800 men.

That reverses the position of the previous year when 10,500 men gained firsts compared with 10,200 women. Only five years ago, men were achieving 1,800 more first class honours degrees than women. The number of women gaining firsts has trebled in 10 years with women now leading the field in 12 of the 17 subject areas, including medicine, law and business.

Why is this happening? One reason is that women now form a majority of the brainiest students. They comprise 55 per cent of incoming undergraduates with A and B A-level grades, so one would expect to see larger numbers doing well as their representation increases.

Behind the statistics lie profound changes in society and in people's attitudes to how they should live their lives. Professor Diana Green, Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, believes that women are able to fulfil themselves as never before. They have chances that previous generations did not have and they are freer of the kind of expectations that used to keep them firmly away from books or intellectual achievement.

Nowadays it is OK - desirable even - for girls to clock up brilliant grades, to postpone getting hitched to a fella and having a family in the interests of self-fulfilment. As a result they are coming into their own. And it is fortunate that girls appear to be genetically programmed to focus on what they are doing, to want to do it well and to see it through to the end.

"We have encouraged the next generation to recognise that the opportunities are there," she says. "It's fallen on fertile soil. Women are seizing their chances. Their ambition is much greater than ours was. Women are feistier nowadays, and more assertive."

Another reason advanced by educational psychologists is that boys are subjected to a laddish culture, which values fashionable trainers over academic success. It is uncool for boys to take their school work seriously. Girls are subjected to similar cultural pressures but to a lesser extent. In their social circles, they are able to combine a social life with being a swot, provided they don't swot too hard. Women are also able to juggle several tasks at once, an advantage - it is argued - they hold over men.

There have been big changes in the universities, which have followed changes in schools - and these, too, could be contributing to the superior performance of women. One is the reform of exam methods. The introduction of modular degrees at almost every university except Oxford and Cambridge means that students are being assessed differently. Big bang finals have given way to modular courses where students learn in bite size chunks and are examined at the end of them or are assessed by performance in essays and theses. Continuous assessment is thought to favour women.

Conversely, degree finals tended to reward the qualities which boys are good at. "They favoured risk-taking and grasp of the big picture, rather than the more systematic, consistent, attention-to-detail qualities which favour girls," according to Dr Madsen Pirie, the right-wing thinker and president of the Adam Smith Institute writing in an article in The Spectator magazine last week.

The change means that exams have been feminised, says Dr Pirie. And that worries him. What effect will it have on the economy, he asks. "If we select the methodical over the risk-takers, male or female, and the systematic in preference to those with insight, will Britain still be capable of meeting the challenges the world throws our way? While the country might be more peaceable, more sensitive to the needs of its citizens, and more efficient in applying itself to the detail of good management, we might ask if it will still be inventive and creative? Will it still produce penicillin and hovercraft? Or will it just produce civil servants?"

These concerns lead Dr Pirie to suggest that students need to be given the opportunity to be assessed in various ways, as happens at Cambridge where they can choose to have more or less emphasis on exams. If all boys and girls were given that choice, we would probably see boys performing better again.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University's Centre for Education and Employment Research, disagrees with that conclusion, though he agrees with much of Dr Pirie's analysis. If assessment rewards effort and consistency and doesn't separate the sheep from the goats, then we will get the kind of results we are getting, he says. Girls will do better because they are known to stick at things. Fewer of them, for example, drop out of university than boys.

"What I would be against is saying boys are doing less well, therefore, we should change the exam system so that boys do better," says Professor Smithers. "I don't believe the superior performance of girls is a problem and I would not want to change the rules to change the result. If society is changing in this way and girls are doing better, good luck to them."

But, like Dr Pirie, Professor Smithers believes the trend raises questions about boys' performance. One thing we need to look at is early years' education because the heavy Anglo-Saxon concentration on pushing children to read and write at a young age could be skewing results in favour of girls, he thinks.

And it's possible that our education system has swung too far towards coursework and against exams, not because girls do better at it but because it involves only some of the things that need to be tested. Being able to present ideas coherently on paper in an exam setting is an important skill, he argues. The examiner knows it's your work and that it has not been pulled off the internet.

As it is, a higher proportion of men still get firsts. Last week's figures show that women have overtaken men in the absolute number of first class degrees they are gaining. It must be only a matter of time before they overtake them in the percentage of firsts they achieve as well.

* l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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