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The gender gap in education

The gender gap in education

The gender gap in education began to attract the attention of the British government and media in the mid-1990s, when it became apparent that girls were out-performing boys at school, at least in terms of certain key academic measures. At the time there was something of a 'moral panic', with some sectors of the press suggesting that the situation had reached 'crisis point' and that there was a need to re-focus equal opportunities to redress the balance for boys.

Attainment in 16+ examinations in England, 1996-2004

Within the project, this debate has been situated, however, within the much broader context of a post-industrial economy, where those who leave school with few qualifications, whether male or female, have limited opportunities in today's labour market. The research began initially in 1994, with a concern to explore the parameters and reasons behind the apparent 'under-achievement' among boys in English schools. Funded by Homerton College, Cambridge, the first phase of the early research focused on one school, developing in the second phase to use questionnaires and focus group interviews in fifteen state secondary schools across East Anglia. Between 2001 and 2005 the Raising Boys' Achievement project was funded by the Department for Education and Skills, and involved an intensive period of fieldwork in around sixty English schools, both primary and secondary, across a range of socio-economic areas.

While a key aim of the project was to identify strategies which aimed to raise achievement in schools, it did so within a gender relational approach, recognising diverse constructions of masculinity and feminity and questioning taken-for-granted concepts such as 'under-achievement'. The findings of such a project have made a widely acknowledged contribution to educational research, made explicit, for example, in an invitation to present the outcomes to a specially-convened three-day conference at the University of Alaska in May 2005, and at the European Conference on Educational Research in Crete in 2004. The research has also contributed to Geography in two key areas. Firstly, it has been apparent that many of the issues associated with 'under-achievement' are related to tensions between the culture of the school and images of masculinity held in the local community and wider society, with boys' construction of masculinity as competitive, macho and 'laddish' resulting in their gradual alienation from school as they seek to position themselves as 'hard' and 'cool'. This was particularly the case among white working-class boys in schools, for example, in inner city Manchester and in inner London boroughs.

The second key contribution has been methodological, with a commitment to process as well as outcome: how the conclusions emerged was as important as the actual findings themselves. Closely allied to this was an emphasis on relationships - between representatives from groups of schools who worked together, between each group and its link researcher, between representatives across groups, between members of the research team and between researchers and the subjects of their research. The importance of time to establish trust and productive working relationships was crucial to the success of the project. Finally was the emphasis on the pupils themselves, which involved not just listening to them but engaging with them, being interested in them and helping to ensure that their perspectives were valued and taken into consideration in the schools' own evaluations of project initiatives.

This research project has led to keynote presentations at: the Commonwealth Education Ministers Conference, Edinburgh (2003); the Council of Europe Network on Gender Mainstreaming Conference, Strasbourg (2004); a specially convened 2-day conference, University of Alaska (2005); and, in 2006, international conferences organised by Vhto (National organisation of Women in Higher Technical Education) and Universum bij het Plaform Techniek (the Dutch Education Ministry) at the University of Utrecht; FoU i praksis, University of Trondheim, Norway; and the European Union Conference on Men's Contribution to Gender Equality, Dublin.


Raising Boys' Achievement in Secondary Schools book cover

Raising Boys' Achievement in Primary Schools book cover

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