Education policy must acknowledge gender differences

This year’s GCSE results show the biggest difference between boys’ and girls’ performance since 2003.

This year’s GCSE results show the biggest difference between boys’ and girls’ performance since 2003

Yesterday, Save the Children published an important report about literacy in schools. Read On, Get On highlighted the links between poor reading skills and later unemployment and low pay.

Despite 20 years of policy initiatives aimed at improving the quality of teaching, there are some stark inequalities in children’s reading skills. In England some 45 per cent of white boys in receipt of free school meals fail to reach the minimum standard for reading at the end of primary education.

From not having learned to read, they cannot read to learn; at secondary school much of children’s learning requires that they read information. Of developed countries, only Romania has larger gaps between the reading skills of low income groups and the overall population.

Poor literacy mean that children leave school with few qualifications and are disadvantaged in the job market. Research from the National Literacy Trust suggests that in England about 16 per cent of adults lack functional literacy, which rise to 25 per cent among the unemployed.

This has a broader economic and fiscal impact, with the Save the Children report arguing that poor reading skills cost the UK about two per cent of its GDP or £30 billion annually.

There has been much improvement in the quality of teaching over the last 25 years and there are far fewer ‘sink’ schools. But the greatest focus of educational interventions has been on secondary education. In England, GCSE results and league tables have become the standard by which educational improvements are measured.

The Save the Children report reminds us that measures to tackle under-achievement and inequality need to focus on all stages of education: early years, primary, secondary, adult and further education. Read On, Get On advocates greater attention to reading at primary schools and in the early years of secondary education. It also argues for schools to work more closely with parents, to encourage reading at home – 10 minutes reading every day can make a difference.

The Save the Children report is also significant in that it shows the gender gap between the reading skills of boys and girls, which is largest in low income groups. It is also a gap that has failed to narrow – this year’s GCSE results show the biggest difference between boys’ and girls’ performance since 2003.

These gender differences are hotly debated in academia, with the achievement gap variously attributed to girls’ better language and social skills, and the culture and ethos of schools.

There is evidence to suggest that girls enjoy school more than boys and show more engagement with educational activities. It is also significant to note that in the 1960s and 1970s, educationalists were concerned about girls’ underachievement.

The first two Labour governments recognised the gender gap and between 2001 and 2005 supported a pilot project that aimed to raise boys’ achievement. The scheme recognised that the causes of this gender gap were complex and would thus require a range of solutions at a classroom level, but also to the whole ethos of the school. The pilot supported the mentoring of boys and the appointment of more male teachers at primary school.

But since 2005, gender has slipped down the educational agenda. There is little debate about the causes of the gender gap and potential solutions. Yesterday’s report from Save the Children shows how important it is that educational policy acknowledges gender differences.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

2 Responses to “Education policy must acknowledge gender differences”

  1. Craig

    According to the statistics you’re drawing on in this article, economic background is a massive indicator of educational success and gender identity is a much smaller – though certainly statistically significant – indicator. Surely therefore the primary focus should be reducing the existence and effects of the former rather than the later?

  2. Tom Schuller

    The gender gap in education continues throughout life. The gap in HE is very well known, but women go on adding to their qualifications and skills more than men do: they take part more in adult education generally and (to my surprise) they take part more also in job-related training. But at work they do not get higher rewards for this higher human capital – a contrast which I call the Paula Principle.

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