GENDER AND EDUCATION IN THE UK
1. GENDER TRENDS IN EDUCATION.
‘Of all the educational inequalities which form the terrain of policy-making since the Second World War, gender has shown the most dramatic shift. Specifically, in England and Wales, the closure of the gender gap up to age sixteen and changing patterns of achievement in post-compulsory education and training stands as a testimony to this transformation.’ (Arnot et al, 1999: 30).
The UK has enjoyed formal ‘gender parity’ in education for a number of years. Since the early 1900s, almost all boys and girls aged 5-11 received some form of education up to at least 14 years of age. Today girls’ enrolment in pre-school, primary and secondary education is between approximately 49 and 52 percent of total enrolments (UNESCO International Bureau of Education; DfES, 2002: 26). In terms of national achievement patterns, not only has the gender gap in entry and performance at 16 and 18 closed but now new gender gaps have opened up: girls are now outperforming boys: in 2001, 56.5 percent of girls achieved 5 or more GCSE or equivalent passes at grades A* - C (or 1 – 3 in Scotland), compared to 45.7 percent of boys (EOC, 2003a: 3). The proportion of girls and boys achieving top grades at 18 (A-levels) is broadly equal, although girls seem to be gaining a slight advantage (in 2001/2002 35 percent of female and 29 percent of male students achieved three grade Bs or better at A’level). (DfES, 2003: 9). The qualification levels of women and men under 25 are now very similar. (EOC, 2001c: 2).
The relative improvement in girls' performance in examinations at 16 has been achieved over the last ten years. In the l960s, boys outperformed girls by about 5%; for the next fifteen years, boys and girls were performing at almost equivalent levels. However, from 1987 only about 80 boys to every hundred girls achieved 5 high grade passes at 16+. Boys lost their advantage in terms of school leaving credentials and are now struggling to keep up to girls' success rate. In the mid l980s, girls turned the tide of credentialism, even at least temporarily, in their favour.
Female school achievement is linked to the fact that girls closed many of the gender gaps in subject choice. They now study science and mathematics up to 16 and perform well in these subjects. By the 1990s, the new pattern of female academic success was established. In l995, seven-year old girls had a head start in Mathematics (81% of girls reached the expected level compared with 77% of boys) and 86% of girls and 83% of boys reached the expected level in Science. Girls' success in Science and Mathematics now follows them through to the school leaving examinations at 16 where again girls perform exceptionally well in these subjects. There is only a 1% difference between the proportion of girls and boys at 16 achieving the top grades in Mathematics and Combined Science. Similar patterns of success by girls in Physics, Biology, Chemistry are to be found at 18.
This new pattern of access and achievement has also been the result of boys' failure to improve their performance at the same rate of girls, from very young ages. A few studies have tracked boys' and girls' progress through primary or through secondary schools indicating that girls make better progress than boys in reading, mathematics, and verbal and non verbal reasoning (Arnot et al, 1998). Data collected from national assessments at the age of 7 demonstrate that girls get off to a better start at reading than boys and that the lead they establish in English is maintained at 11 and at age 14 (ibid). A sizeable gap between boys and girls in reading and English is sustained throughout compulsory schooling. By 2000, approximately 15% more girls than boys obtained high grades in English examinations at 16 (DfEE, 2000). The fact that boys have not reduced this female 'advantage' in language related subjects is one of the principal...
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