The gender achievement divide
A central paradox exists within education: the gender achievement divide. Our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, spoke recently of the prospect of a 'wasted generation of boys' and his fervent desire to tackle the gender gap in educational achievement and understand boys' failure. Nevertheless, some researchers have been warning, since as far back as even 1999, that politicians and teachers could be trying to 'ameliorate a situation in British education that may not exist' (The Times, 1999). The results of my small-scale ethnographic study, completed last January, has offered interesting insights into this debate whilst simultaneously engendering some controversy.
Analysis of boys' achievement within our English Department over the past few years seemed, at face value, to correlate with recent wider findings: girls often do better than boys at school. Furthermore English, countrywide, is generally viewed as a subject with a significant gender differential, with estimates as great as 17%.
Whilst I was keen to explore a range of strategies to combat the differential, the principal focus of the study was the impact of setting (as determined by gender). Setting, or streaming, can be traced back to the middle part of last century; Brian Jackson's influential study in the sixties (Jackson 1964) identified some of the many problems that can occur through streaming but most importantly that where a focus was placed on streaming 'the change in organisation seemed rarely preceded or followed up with a focus on new teaching strategies to replace old routines'. My findings certainly challenge notions of 'underachievement,' suggesting that quality teaching and learning, the design and execution of well-prepared materials, and targeted strategies to improve student self-worth, at all levels of ability and with both genders, are more valuable than issues of gender in themselves and are certainly more important than attempts to engineer relationships through setting.
My research indicated that what setting does seem to encourage is learned 'failure,' if we can understand what we mean by the word. Jackson's study highlighted, even in the 1960's, the issue that some children might remain in the same set from the age of 7 and that the effects of this can be debilitating to children's concepts of self-worth.
Failure and strategies to protect self-worth
Understanding what we mean by 'failure' was an essential foundation to my work. As a society we have created an inextricable link between education and future employment. The difficulty in building our lives around something as ultimately ephemeral as work, or academic success, is that when we fail, because our notions of self-identity are often so bound in our success, our self-esteem and self-worth are damaged.
And as a society we have established a series of benchmarks by which we can judge our success. Any individual achieving below a C grade in one of the core subjects is deemed to have 'failed' and as a result, should they wish to progress into further education, must retake those examinations. Consequently, C is a grade synonymous with the barrier of success and failure. National league tables are established on the basis of a school's ability to marshal students beyond that milestone and students' self-worth and esteem, whether they choose to acknowledge it publicly or not, is also inextricably linked with these outcomes.
The research of such as Covington and Omelich (1985) establishes a direct link between self-worth and shame when attributed to low ability. Whilst manipulation of setting according to gender seemed unnecessary, a focus on low ability students was fascinating, for in the study were 15 boys who had been told from a very early stage in their secondary schooling that they were in effect 'failures', that they were not at the required standard, and that they were never likely to be. …