Last time I wrote about Women in Work and the very varied picture of diversity success in countries around the world. Now I want to turn our attention to gender in education.
We can start this tale by looking at some facts. Some of which will surprise you and others you may think you already know. Whichever it is you will see there are some serious issues we need to get sorted.
Lets start by looking at the good news.
Women and Education
– Globally, women are more educated today than at any point in history, but still not as educated as men
If you look at the data from the Barro Lee data set you can see how life has changed in the last 50 years. Back then, almost 50 % of women had no formal schooling and their average level of educational attainment was just 3.3 years. By 2010, only 20% of adult women had had no formal schooling and their average attainment had increased to nearly 8 years.
– Gender gaps almost never endure in educated countries
It is very difficult to find examples of countries where men are highly educated and women are not. In an article by Jakiela and Hares from the Centre for Global Development we learn that “countries with high levels of education among men almost never have substantial gender gaps. This was true in 1960 and it is true today. In fact, in 2010 there were only seven countries where men had more than eight years of schooling and women had more than one year less schooling than men — Austria, Bolivia, Ghana, Iraq, South Korea, Luxembourg, and Tunisia.”
– Girls fare better than boys under more rigorous courses
In article in The Guardian in August 2019, data shows that “More than one in four exam entries by girls aged 16 received top grades of A or 7 and above in this summer’s exams in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, an improvement of half a percentage point to 25.3% compared with last year, while just 18.6% of entries by boys in Year 11 achieved the same grades.” This appears to dispel the myth that the more heavily course work weighted GCSES were giving girls an advantage over boys.
– The difference in attainment between boys and girls shows no sign of stopping
Again in The Guardian in 2019 reflection on the data from SATS at primary level education shows the gap between the two sexes widening further, “The results, from the national curriculum tests and assessments taken by pupils in year six, known as Sats, showed 70% of girls reached the expected standards in maths, reading and writing, compared with just 60% for boys, widening the gap from 8% last year to 10% this year.”
Evidence for around the world is showing that while we have made a great change in the educational achievement of girls and women, there is something going awry with boys. Obviously, this is not a zero-sum game and girls are not stealing education from boys but the achievements in women’s education have served to highlight an issue that is troubling and which may have very serious long-term consequences, both economically and politically.
How big are the changes in Gender and Education?
If we pull some other key take outs from that first Guardian 2019 article, I think that will show us quote the scale of change we are witnessing. Here they are:
– number of girls taking computing, up 14% – and even though boys are still in a large majority in this subject, “they continue to outperform their male peers at the subject with just under 25% getting A/7 compared with 21% of boys”
– A-level results showed that more girls than boys took science subjects for the first time
– 837 students achieved a full set of 9s in seven or more subjects, with girls making up two-thirds of the high-flyers
– And the top prize goes to….” girls won the majority of the coveted top grade of 9, with 5.2% of female entries gaining the grade, compared with 3.7% of boys. Just below that, 13.1% of girls gained a level 8, compared with 9.4% of boys.”
The significant effort to raise the involvement and attainment of girls in so many countries is having a truly significant and meaningful impact. And that is great , not only because education is a right that should be denied to no-one but also because it is a moral issue and comes with significant economic benefits.
Jo Bourne of UNICEF notes that, “The power of girls’ education on national economic growth is undeniable: a one percentage point increase in female education raises the average gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 percentage points and raises annual GDP growth rates by 0.2 percentage points.”
She also goes on to give real, in country examples, “in Pakistan, working women with high levels of literacy skills earned 95% more than women with weak or no literacy skills, whereas the differential was only 33 % among men.”
What about the boys?
There is a lot to celebrate in the world of women’s education and rightly so. Let’s keep that up. We are helping in our own small way by promoting scholarship opportunities for women to improve their language skills through our We Can Do It programme.
But we all have an issue with boys and education. We can’t let success in one area overshadow clear failures in others.
The problem with boys in education was explored very well in an article in the Financial Times in 2018. The article, by Kuper and Jacobs, looks at the issue through the prism of a comprehensive school in York, England.
They note that this issue I not just an English one, “In developed countries, on average, boys underperform girls at school. They are much worse at reading, less likely to go to university, and their lead in maths is shrinking (to nothingness, in countries such as China and Singapore).”
In England though the problem seems to be heavily concentrated in white, working class boys.
As I noted above, there are social, economic, and politically problems coming from this failure of education. Kuper and Jacobs note how poor literacy in men leads to poor health, low wages, and a trust deficit in others. I would also suggest it creates an audience for rampant populism and ill- disguised nationalism. You can see how such a group could be made to believe that their disadvantages are as a direct result of the achievements of others, and how this can then be manipulated into racism.
Problematically this is intensified by the fact, as Kuper and Jacobs point out, the jobs that would have traditionally offered some hope for this group are the very jobs that are now being automated. You can easily see how poor levels of education and the disappearance of jobs that would have been available, irrespective of your level of education, will combine to create the perfect storm of social disruption.
Gender and Education – What’s to be done?
No sane person would suggest for a moment taking our foot of the gas on extending educational opportunities for women. Equally, unless you were trying to create an army of the dissatisfied, would anyone look at the data and do nothing about the way the systems are failing some boys.
We could do worse than starting straightaway by recognising that boys are different from girls. In a series of proposals from the OECD, we see how they acknowledge that and make some down–to–earth proposals for change.
a) Give students a greater choice in what they read – the report sees a relationship with high performance and reading fiction, but boys are less good at engaging with books! “Obliging poor readers, who are overwhelmingly boys, to read texts that they may find too challenging – and perhaps uninteresting to them as well – may alienate them from reading altogether.” So let boys read…anything, anything at all, “Parents and teachers can use comic books, magazines and newspapers to help boys develop the habit of reading for enjoyment”
b) Allow some video gaming, but homework comes first – I think all of us parents recognise the lure of the phone and the games console to our children, and the OECD does not argue for removing those avenues of pleasure from life. “PISA shows that moderate video gaming is not associated with poorer performance in school, and may even help students acquire useful skills, such as spatial judgement and the ability to navigate through web-based material” That being said independent study needs to come first, then the fun
c) Train teachers to be aware of their own gender biases – a really interesting point here, and you can see how there may be a bit of self-reinforcement going on, “teachers generally award girls higher marks than boys, given what would be expected after considering their performance in PISA. This practice is particularly apparent in language-of-instruction courses. Girls’ better marks may reflect the fact that they tend to be “better students” than boys: they tend to do what is required and expected of them, thanks to better self-regulation skills, and they are more driven to excel in school” The report goes on suggest that teachers are given the same sort of gender bias training that private companies deploy.
Gender and Education – Are we there yet?
No – we have made great strides in balancing up education but we need to keep a broad and open view of achievement. Two Cheers I think for now.