Every year when exam results are published in the UK, we are told two things by the press. One, that school is getting progressively easier, and two, that boys are failing, and more so every year.
This is to at least some extent, incorrect. Every year the amount of boys passing exams increases, however it does so at a lesser rate than their female counterparts, creating an ever-widening gender gap in the pass rate.
This can be contributed to a number of factors, not least the education system itself. 30 years ago, women in education were predominantly ignored. The "Invisible Woman" study, conducted by Dale Spender found that they received only 38% of classroom time, and other sociologists uncovered similar findings. 30 years ago, girls were comparatively failing, and certain changes were made in the education system were made to stop this.
Social policy was introduced to encourage girls, including schemes such as Girls Into Science and Technology (GIST), Girls And Technology Education (GATE) and Women Into Science and Engineering (WISE). Textbooks in these generally male-dominated areas were re-written to show photos and diagrams of women as well as men conducting experiments, and teachers were encouraged to focus on their female members of the classroom. The result? In all but biology and chemistry, girls pass at a greater rate, but can this be attributed entirely to social policy?
The answer? Not Really. Another potential cause is the so-called feminisation of education. Think back to your days in primary or elementary school. How many of your teachers were women? What about in pre-school? Was there a single male adult? The reasons for this are social demands. Parents worry about who is in contact with their young, and are naturally more trusting of women. In recent years, any man wishing to teach younger children is subjected to a far greater level of scrutiny, and there is a certain stigma present about any man wanting such a role at all. The result of this is that whereas girls grow up surrounded by women who have obviously succeeded at education and actively encourage it, many boys male role-models are likely to be in a less-academic field.
Women are also seen to be more actively encouraged in business than ever before. The business women Deborah Meaden and Barbara Corcoran are prime examples of this. While there naturally are male counterparts, these are nothing new to increase male achievement.
On a similar vein, the aspirations of women are different to how they were 40 years ago. In 1976, Sue Sharpe conducted an interview of girls from a London comprehensive, and found their priorities to be love, marriage, kids then job, in that order. Upon repeating the study in 1996, these priorities were found to be career, love, marriage, kids.
All these reason combine to suggest why girls are more motivated in education, but do not go very far to explaining why boys are not. Well, one such reason is male attitudes. Paul Willis studied the attitudes and behavior of 12 working class boys from the midlands through overt observation and interviews. While the group that he studied was small, and his methodology somewhat inhibited by demand characteristics and interviewer bias, he reached the conclusion that the 'laddish' behavior and attitudes of the boys prevented them from academic achievement.
These attitudes may have been proporgated by parents that widely support their daughters more than their sons, and are often more likely to fund university for their daughters. Without such encouragement, some boys are destined to fail.
This lack of encouragement supposedly comes from the view that boys have manual trades to fall back on more than girls do, and even though with manufacturing at an all time low, this attitude still exists amoungst young males today.
Finally, biology itself comes into play. Boys tend to go through puberty slightly later than their female counterparts, which causes them to be in an age of "adolescent silliness" at critical stages in their education. On top of this, girls' concentration span is often greater, allowing them to work for longer before being distracted by the paper-aeroplane throwing, loud whispering, work avoiding events of their classroom.
There is a multitude of reasons for this gap in educational achievement, from social policy and the feminisation of education, to social attitudes, and biological make-up itself. Addressing this gap would require not only a change in the way that education is structured, but also of the social demands of males. It can only only be speculated as to whether such changes would then cause girls to underachieve as opposed to boys.