John Edale noticed a phenomenon in the UK: boys were “missing” from universities. Below, he explores some or the root causes of the issue and proposes solutions to put a halt to the cycle.
A few years ago I began to notice something odd during my work travels around the UK. I would occasionally find myself passing colleges and universities, and noticing that there appeared to be an unusually high ratio of female to male students. Over time, although I still had no idea why it was happening, the disparity ceased to seem unusual at all.
Once in a while I would hear it mentioned on the radio that boys were apparently falling behind at all levels of education. On rarer occasions there would be some attempt at an explanation. Usually it was along the lines of boys being slower to develop than girls, or having shorter attention spans, or some other inherent deficiency. This seemed to beg the question of why boys hadn’t always lagged behind, but nobody asked.
Then, last December, I happened to hear a discussion on BBC Radio 2 about the emerging pay gap between men and women in their twenties, with women now earning more than men by a small but growing margin. The main, although not the only cause of this appears to be the continuing decline in boy’s educational achievements, which is now beginning to affect the career choices available to many younger men.
However, the question to be discussed was not how this new pay gap and its underlying causes might be addressed but, as the presenter Jane Garvey explained in a slightly irritated tone, whether or not it really mattered. I’ve heard countless news items and discussions on the BBC about all kinds of inequalities, but have never heard the debate being framed in those terms before.
The program then seemed to provide an implicit answer to this question by devoting most of its time to discussing the other pay gap, between older workers, in which women are worse off, with the new pay gap being barely alluded to after the initial introductions.
For the first time in my life I wrote a complaint to the BBC, explaining my unhappiness with the nature of the discussion and finishing with the following points:
The pay gap between women and men over the age of thirty is considerably larger than the one that has arisen for workers in their twenties, and is compounded by a chronic under representation of women at all senior levels within society. In a wider discussion of gender inequality these issues would rightly merit the greater degree of attention. But on this occasion I think the presenter should have tried to keep the discussion focused on its original remit.
After this I wrote a blog looking at the situation in terms of personal issues for which I had recently sought counseling, and which I thought might explain why the program had got to me in the way it had. But even after I had done this, I was still left with the nagging impression that, particularly regarding the way that the educational issue was being discussed (or not being discussed), I might have a valid point.
Back in the 1990’s I had been active in a couple of radical left-wing organisations, and also moderated a particularly lively discussion forum. But it was over ten years since I had had much to do with politics or even taken more than a passing interest in current affairs, my time being divided instead between family responsibilities and my vehicle delivery job.
However, I decided that in order to try to get to the bottom of what was going on, I needed to fire-up my rusty old brain and do some research.
In an analysis of the student population of 2011/2012, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reports that :
A higher proportion of female students (56.4%) than male students (43.6%) were studying in HE in the UK. This gender imbalance was more pronounced among students studying part-time of whom 60.8% were female. Amongst other undergraduate students, nearly two-thirds (64.0%) were female.
The imbalance apparently began to appear about twenty five years ago.
Although the gender gap becomes particularly visible within higher education, an article in the Guardian newspaper from 2010, by Anushka Asthana, suggests that it actually begins at a very young age. The article is reviewing the education section of a report entitled How Fair Is Britain? produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The report reveals ‘evidence of boys in their early years slipping behind in problem solving and reasoning and then in social and emotional development. By the age of five, 53% had reached the expected level in writing compared with 72% of girls.’
The article contains an interview with educational psychologist Gaynor Sbuttoni who argues that ‘schools placed too much emphasis on skills that boys often struggle with but which were not necessarily relevant in adulthood,’ such as neat handwriting or the ability to sit still.
I like the fact that she is standing up for the boys, but it doesn’t seem to me the features she is describing are anything new. The concern over handwriting and discipline was there when I was at school in the 70’s and 80’s, but the gender gap wasn’t.
In the last couple of decades there have been several government initiatives aimed at addressing the problem, including an intensive project in more than 50 schools and a drive to recruit more male teachers, and yet here we are in 2013 and the gap is still getting bigger.
The article in The Guardian contains one eye-opening piece of information, which is never elaborated on, but which for me probably explains why none of these initiatives worked:
“The under-achievement of boys is an international phenomenon that has emerged in recent years.”
If the problem is international, then adjustments made to the education system of one particular country aren’t likely to get to the root of it. So what potential factors are there which may be so omnipresent as to have triggered this situation?
One possible candidate is suggested by William Draves from the Learning Resources Network. In an article written back in 2001, Draves clarifies that the international aspect of the problem relates only to developed nations and points out that the rise of the gender gap coincides quite neatly with the rise of computer technology and the internet within those nations.
He claims that while both genders are interested in technology and equally capable of using it, boys are more eager to explore new technology. Draves argues that boys began to have a problem with how outdated and irrelevant many aspects of their education suddenly seemed, and that teachers in turn began to have a problem with boys.
“The reason there is a war on against boys is that boys are into the Internet and technology. The Internet terrifies most teachers, and some boys know more about the Internet than do many educators.” Draves points out that while most measures of teenage crime are falling, boys within school are being subjected to more punishments than ever. He believes that the education system will inevitably modernize itself over time, and the gender gap will begin to close, but that the process will take a couple of decades.
Draves states, “By 2020 schools will be redesigned to meet the requirements of the 21st century and to prepare students for the workforce of the Internet Age.” So far, this prediction doesn’t seem to be coming true. We are more than halfway to the deadline, and schools are using more computers and online activities than ever, and yet the gender gap is still getting bigger.
One explanation of why the problem might persist, whatever its original cause, is provided in a study carried out in the UK by Bonnie Hartley, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Kent. The study concluded that, “Schoolboys perform worse than girls in exams because they think girls are cleverer than them.”
The study was carried out using a class of local primary school children. One class was split into two groups– with one group being told boys did not do as well as girls. Boys in this group performed markedly worse in all three subjects they were tested in – reading, writing and math. The second group, there was little difference in results between the boys’ and the girls’ results.
So in other words, once the gender gap has been around for long enough for it to be perceived as natural, then it might continue under its own momentum even if the original cause was addressed. The research also showed that, “by the time schoolboys turn seven they think girls are cleverer than them.”
Surely this sad little fact, more than anything else, illustrates why the gender gap matters?
But are there other possible international causes?
In The War Against Boys, academic Christina Hoff Sommers lays at least part of the blame at the feet of “misguided feminism.”
Sommers provides a detailed critique of research carried out by academics such as Carol Gilligan, and institutes such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which claims to prove that women have a naturally different and more “caring” morality than men, and that within the education system girls were disadvantaged to the point of being “in crisis.” Sommers labels this ideology as “gender feminism.”
According to Sommers, despite having questionable scientific validity and several high profile critics, these viewpoints gave rise to a series of laws and policies intended to curtail the alleged advantage that boys had. But even assuming Sommers has correctly identified gender feminism as the root cause in the USA, is there any evidence that these ideas have any international influence?
In the UK at least, there seems to be far more concern over those few subjects in which girls have not yet caught up, such as science, than over the majority of subjects in which boys are falling further behind. The overall gender gap is either ignored, or worse still regarded as a perverse cause for celebration.
Within the “equality industry” in the UK, the belly of the beast is the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They are mandated by Parliament to “challenge discrimination, and protect and promote human rights.” and also “to protect, enforce and promote equality.” Their most recent review of educational equality in the UK is contained in one section of their 2010 report “How Fair Is Britain?” which was discussed in The Guardian article.
Although the majority of the education section is composed only of raw data, with little overt interpretation, the opening page contains a summary of what are considered to be the positive or negative aspects. At various points in the summary, the specific problems faced by ethnic minorities, disabled students, girls, young people with Special Educational Needs, lesbian, gay and bisexual and transgender young people are all acknowledged, whereas the problems faced by boys are not.
At one point the gender gap is actually included in a list of developments that are regarded as positive:
Whereas a generation ago almost all the students on the university campus were White British, today 1 in 5 are from ethnic minority groups and an increasing number of disabled students are also attending. Women are now ahead of men in many aspects of educational success.
The mindset described by Sommers in the USA is certainly present in the UK as well, but does that necessarily mean it is the root cause of the gender gap in education?
Sommers is a compelling, passionate writer who backs up her case with verifiable statistics. She is also sufficiently renowned to receive significant media coverage for her ideas. I find myself wondering why everyone prefer to listen to the likes of Carol Gilligan and the AAUW.
Is it possible that the gender feminists were just saying what people already wanted to hear and were, perhaps unwittingly, exploiting a pre-existing problem?
Maybe the arrival of computer technology really did trigger a schism between boys and the education system, and the antagonistic version of feminism put forward by people like Gilligan was able to gain ground as the ideological justification for a fight that had already started?
Or perhaps the male gender as a whole was already struggling in some fundamental way?
Western democratic societies have changed radically in recent decades. Many traditional male occupations in manufacturing and industry have been globalized away to “undeveloped” corners of the world. Warfare has changed as well. For the first time in our history there is no realistic expectation that future generations of young men will be called away en masse to fight and die. One might imagine a scenario in which this change was accompanied only by a collective sigh of relief, but perhaps there was also an unconscious loss of status and place. Over the last half century we have also had to face the growing realization that we are damaging the planet in ways which may not be easy to fix, or which are downright irreparable. Maybe the extent to which these problems are perceived to be, literally, man made could have led to the suspicion, somewhere in the back of our collective psyche, that there is just something fundamentally flawed about the male gender.
In conclusion, I still don’t know why boys are falling behind, because nobody seems to know for certain. However, I know one thing that isn’t the cause – boys aren’t stupid and they aren’t getting stupider.
I also know a couple of things that might help. Firstly, there ought to be a wider debate about the kinds of positive roles, both new and old, which men can play (and already are playing) in modern Western societies.
Secondly, more people need to be more willing to challenge the notion that the gender gap in education doesn’t matter, and thus begin to drag the problem out into the light. The reasons why the gap appeared may be too contentious or complex for a consensus to ever emerge about them, but the reasons why the gap matters are utterly straightforward. If we aspire to live in a genuinely egalitarian society then all inequalities matter, and the ones that affect children ought to matter the most.
Read more in Education.