Opinion; Don't panic, the boys are all right

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The Independent Online
Are boys and young men falling behind in the stampede for qualifications and jobs? Are they now the disadvantaged? If we are to believe the media and the Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, the answer to both questions is yes. In fact, a moral panic has broken out recently over the apparent decline in boys' performance.

However a recent research project funded by the Equal Opportunities Commission suggests that what we are witnessing is, on the contrary, a success story. As a co-director of that research project - whose report, Education Reforms and Gender Equality in Schools, has just been published - I suggest that much of the doom and gloom about achievement in schools is misplaced. Boys are doing better than ever before in examinations, and girls have improved even more.

The year-long project, which was completed in 1995, had three principal aims: to map examination entry and performance trends over the 10-year period 1984-94; to investigate school and local education authority perceptions of the impact of the reforms on gender equality; and to identify current concerns at school and local authority level. We found a success story in each of the three parts of the project.

First, at GCSE, there has been an overall increase in entry and performance for both girls and boys. There has been a reduction of sex differences in entry in all subjects except for chemistry and economics, where boys increasingly dominate, and social science, which recruits more girls. Overall, boys still outnumber girls at GCSE in science and technology. In 1994, 33 per cent more boys than girls took physics, 22 per cent more boys than girls took chemistry, 30 per cent more boys than girls took computer studies and a massive 51 per cent more boys than girls took CDT (craft, design and technology).

The GCSE success story for girls is that they are achieving more exam passes than could be anticipated by their numbers on entry, and are doing particularly well in English and modern languages. The converse is true for boys - they are doing less well than might be expected from their numbers on entry and doing less well in English, modern languages and the humanities.

At A-level, again boys have the advantage. They are closing the entry gap opened by girls in arts and the humanities, and are increasing their entry advantage in physics, technology, computing and economics. We can see, therefore, little indication of male failure at this level - in fact, boys seem to be holding their own in take-up of A-levels and still continue to gain higher grades, though girls' performance levels are improving markedly.

Non-academic boys are doing even better than their academic counterparts, having an overall advantage of approximately 7 per cent in vocational qualifications. Once again, however, comfort can be drawn from the fact that both sexes are improving their performance in work-related subjects, though there are substantial sex differences in the subjects chosen. Boys favour engineering, construction and computing; girls favour beauty, hairdressing, nursery nursing and training as carers and dental assistants.

The reasons for the changed entry and performance patterns of girls and boys can be found in the other parts of the report. According to the schools and local education authorities that responded to the questionnaire, certain of the Government's reforms have enhanced gender equality: the introduction of GCSE, which allows each pupil, particularly girls, to take a more balanced range of subjects; the fact that the national curriculum entails a broad range of study for all pupils from the beginning of their school days; the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, which has a particular emphasis on gender equality; and Ofsted equal opportunities inspection requirements.

The project carried out case studies of seven local authority areas in different parts of the country. These found an impressive commitment to gender equality in a large number of teachers and schools, student cultures that increasingly take equality between the sexes for granted, and different expectations of this generation of parents.

Perhaps the most important success story of this research, though, is the discovery that despite government lack of interest in - indeed, often antagonism towards - issues of equality, individuals, schools and communities can make a difference - in fact, they can help to bring about real change.

'Education Reforms and Gender Equality in Schools', by Gaby Weiner, Madeleine Amot & Miriam David, is available from the Equal Opportunities Commission, Overseas House, Quay Street, Manchester M3 3HN, pounds 14.95.