GCSEs, O-levels and gender: Myths of underachievement

I wrote this post in a fit of rage-fuelled inspiration. Only kidding. I am, after all, a mere woman. What I actually did was take hours, nay, days to plod diligently through several drafts, listening to the creaks and groans of the slow-moving cogs that drive the female brain. Hopefully it’s therefore an okay piece. I mean, I’ve tried my best. What more can we women do, given that pure unadulterated genius – or failing that, just the ability to think quickly – is way beyond our reach?

I am a well-educated person – possibly over-educated, given that a) I’m a woman and b) I have kids. I have lots of qualifications, partly due to my class background, partly due to luck – but mostly, it could be argued, due to fortunate timing. After all, I took my GCSEs in 1991, only shortly after the introduction of the exam. As we all know, GCSEs favour girls. Had I been born a few years earlier I’d have had to take O-levels and we all know that boys, being innately clever as opposed to innately arsed to do coursework, consistently outperformed girls when it came to these. We all know that, and yet it’s actually total bollocks.

According to a report on the BBC website this evening, today’s girls should be afraid, very  afraid, about the revised GCSE specifications on the not-too-distant horizon (starting with teaching for certain core subjects in 2015). A return to grades being based purely on final exam scores rather than a mix of exams and coursework is set to “disadvantage girls”. Geoff Venn, a former chief examiner for chemistry, has told the Association of Teachers and Lecturers that if Gove has his way “we could see a situation where GCSE results for girls go down”:

Where we have high-stakes testing, girls feel less confident to excel. Boys are more adventurous and can go into the final examination and feel more confident in doing it.

In response, ATL general secretary Mary Boustead has conceded that “it may be that the rise of girl power in examinations is down to the more measured way of assessing, of which coursework is a part” (I know! “Girl power in examinations” and she doesn’t even credit the inspiring influence of Geri et al).

Now it is true that over the past twenty five years, the gender gap in examination results obtained at age 16 has widened. What isn’t so widely acknowledged, on the other hand, is that up until then boys hardly dominated the results tables. On the contrary, in the decade prior to the introduction of GCSEs, girls slightly outperformed boys at O-level (if you break down the statistics in more detail, they significantly outperformed boys in arts and humanities subjects, while boys slightly outperformed girls in maths and science). Prior to that the pass rate was very similar, again with girls significantly outperforming boys in certain areas and boys slightly outperforming girls in others. This has to be seen in the context of girls simply not being entered for as many O-levels as boys and being pushed towards what were perceived to be more “female” subjects. In addition to this, if we take the two-tier 11-plus system into account, many girls were told they had “failed” despite achieving better results than boys who were offered places at grammar schools (this was to achieve gender “balance” over intake). According to one report, “if raw scores in the 11+ had been used to determine selection, then grammar schools in the 50s and 60s would have been populated almost exclusively by girls”. To put this another way, girls have suffered active discrimination within the state education system and yet on average, their achievements have been equal if not superior to those of their male peers. This was the case long before the introduction of GCSEs – so can we please stop suggesting to girls that they are somehow hardwired to lack confidence in “high-stakes testing”?

This seriously pisses me off, not because I think of myself as some girl genius (I bloody hate exams) nor because I think the key issue for women today is whether a tiny minority of us get our “rightful” places at the high tables of Oxbridge. It pisses me off because it’s a lie, yet another of those gender stereotypes which risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many studies have suggested that if you tell women that they’re performing a task which women usually find more difficult, they will find it more difficult than if you’d said nothing at all. And this is precisely what we’ve started doing with the new GCSE specs, before they’ve even been written. It is setting women up, and in doing so may offer a new means of justifying inequality. Right now we justify women’s lack of economic, political and public status in lots of different ways; pregnancy and childcare provide the most dominant excuses, but the idea that our education system is “feminised” and that therefore the achievements of girls aren’t “real” ones is another. Wouldn’t it be a damn sight easier if girls just didn’t do as well in exams? (The fact that women now outperform men in IQ tests puts a spanner in the works, sure, but everyone knows these are meaningless for assessing which sex is the cleverest – or at least we’ve known it since last year.)

The truth is, I don’t have a particular opinion on whether, in the grand scheme of things, girls are “cleverer” than boys. Or rather, I think “cleverness” can mean whatever you want it to and I suspect the only people who get het up about “proving” which group is apparently best are doing so out of a desire to defend unjustifiable privilege. All the same, I’m sick of girls being told lies. I’m sick of all the insidious ways in which it’s suggested to them that they’re not quite up to scratch. I’m sick of children and young people not being able to develop their own skills and aptitudes without being told in advance when and where their gender will make them “fail”. One look at Gove’s recent Enemies of Promise rant tells us there’s enough to worry about when it comes to the education of our kids. Please let’s not continue to present them with the expectation of underachievement by stereotype.


12 thoughts on “GCSEs, O-levels and gender: Myths of underachievement

  1. “I’m sick of children and young people not being able to develop their own skills and aptitudes without being told in advance when and where their gender will make them “fail”.”

    This statement alone would have been an epic post.

    Love your work – please keep it up!

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