What makes girls so clever: When boys are outclassed, a well-researched excuse is always to hand, says Valerie Walkerdine

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NOTHING surprised me less than the recent news that girls have been walking away with top GCSE results, but it hasn't stopped some commentators coming out with the hoary old chestnut reserved for when girls do well: that is, boys are doing badly]

There has been a long history of the suppression of female academic achievement, from Victorian ideas that brain-work would make for infertile wombs, to the practice, now outlawed, of allotting boys and girls separate pass marks for the 11-plus. This latter policy was justified on the grounds that girls matured earlier than boys, so their superior performance would otherwise cause them to walk away with all the grammar school places, thereby unfairly stifling the boys' potential.

While some of us at the time muttered uncharitable thoughts about the capacity of boys and men ever to grow up, there seemed to be endless attempts to play down the success of girls. I started researching this area in the late 1970s when there was much interest in the improvement of girls' mathematical and scientific performance.

One of the first prejudices I encountered was the consistent attempt in the research literature, as well as more popularly, to ascribe girls' good performance to hard work, diligence and good behaviour. Boys, by contrast, were held to have the kind of potential that leads to brilliance, even if their current classroom performance exhibited no tangible evidence of it.

To suggest that girls, too, might be rather bright seemed to be a very threatening idea. Well, of course it is threatening to imagine that women may be intellectually as strong as men, when intellect has been considered a male preserve since time immemorial. So when girls do well there has been a tendency to downplay their performance on one hand, and then to pose their success as a problem for boys.

This latest crop of GCSE results has found headteachers talking once again about girls' hard work, and worrying about what a problem this success is for boys. The amount of coursework in the GCSE, for example, is seen as favouring girls' aptitude for hard work and diligent application. And teacher attitudes (for example in English and foreign languages) favour girls, by concentrating on areas such as fiction and conversation, at which girls are supposed to sparkle, rather than fact and rationality, where boys are said to do better. This reaction is consistent with research that traditionally blames girls and mothers for boys' failure, while simultaneously attributing girls' success to modifications in the curriculum and teaching methods. In mathematics, for example, girls have been said to do well at 10 only because their female teachers stress low-level computation as against higher- level conceptual work. In maths and sciences in particular, there has long been an assumption that girls are lacking in the early socialisation experiences (eg, playing with Lego) that equip boys for success. So from the Seventies, compensatory programmes have been devised to bridge this gap. The irony is, as I have found in my own research, that girls were actually doing rather well at primary school; the problem lay with the interpretation of their performance by researchers.

Girls have been outperforming boys in secondary education for a long time now, and not just in Britain. Studies around the world have noted girls' success, as well as noting, as one French study commented, that 'boys adapt badly to secondary education'. So why the belated recognition? First, for as long as boys continued to gain outstanding grades - despite girls' overall better performance - the myth of male brilliance could be sustained. This year's GCSE results have blown this apart. Second, there is a real determination by girls' teachers not to accept that their failure might be endemic. Anti-sexist and equal- opportunities initiatives, now killed off in so many debt- stricken local authorities, have affected the attitudes both of teachers, and of girls themselves, giving them confidence that they were capable of doing very well indeed.

On the long-running debate about separate versus mixed- sex education, the evidence is inconclusive, because so many single-sex schools are selective. That girls from such schools are now taking the top marks, however, needs to be thought about carefully as an antidote to all those arguments about hard work versus brilliance. Whoever believed that the solitary genius writing alone in his garret did so without some very hard work?

The problem lies in the way that 'brilliance' and 'hard work' have been viewed as essential male and female qualities. Perhaps with these results the time has come to help boys, not any more at the price of girls' success, but by taking apart the fictions of masculine genius upon which versions of male success have rested. Practical strategies for tackling this are in short supply.

While the success of the girls' schools in the GCSE is to be celebrated, I want to issue a few words of caution. My colleagues, Helen Lucey, June Melody and I at the University of London are conducting the third part of a longitudinal study of two groups of girls, one now 16, the other 21. Our sample, stratified by social class, reveals a huge attainment gap between middle-class girls at fee-paying schools or well funded state schools and working-class girls at schools in poorer areas.

The latter girls are not getting straight As and very few of them are going on to higher education (those that do face terrible financial difficulties). While their courage in facing the squalid playgrounds of the inner city is often stunning, girls who achieved so well at junior school are facing no greater prospect than the dole queue. Not for them top marks and Oxbridge entry. In the postwar expansion, the worlds of girls like these did come closer together. Today, it seems, they could not be farther apart. I shall celebrate when these young women, too, have something to write home about.

The author is Professor of Psychology in the Department of Media and Communication, Goldsmiths' College, University of London. She is the author of a number of books in this area and is currently writing a volume for Macmillan on young girls and popular culture.

(Photograph omitted)