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Assess the sociological explanation for girls outperforming boys in

most subjects and at most levels of education. (24 marks)

In most subjects and at most levels of education, starting from the
early 1990s, girls have performed better than boys. Previously, boys
had outperformed girls in most GCSE subjects, girls have reversed this
pattern in most subjects at GCSE and at A level. In 1995, 48% of girls
achieved 5+ grades A-C at GCSE compared to a 39% of boys. While
there have clearly been changes in gender and educational
achievement, sociologists differ in their interpretation of the
importance of these changes. Liberal feminist encourage the progress
made so far in improving girls' achievement. They believe that further
progress will be made by the continuing development of equal
opportunities policies, encouraging positive role models and
overcoming sexist attitudes and stereotypes. In contrast , radical
feminists take a more critical view when recognising that girls are
outperforming boys at most levels of education by emphasising that
the educational system remains patriarchal. There are, however, a
number of reasons explaining why girls have, and continue to do so,
outperformed boys in most subjects and at most levels of education.
These can be divided into external factors, factors which affect girls
that are outside the education system and internal factors, which are
factors that are within schools and the education system.
Many sociologists argue that the rapid improvement in achievement
and girls' results can best be explained by changes that have occurred
in factors within the school. Liberal feminist ideas have had a major
impact on the education system. Due to their beliefs, those who run
the system are now much more aware of gender issues than in the
past and realise that they can discriminate against girls. Teachers
being trained in equal opportunities led to them becoming more
sensitive to the need of avoiding gender stereotyping. The belief that
boys and girls are equally capable and entitled to the same
opportunities is now part of mainstream thinking in education and it
influences educational policies. Many LEAs and schools have
experimented with single-sex classes as this reinforces the feminist
aim of improving female performance. Policies such as GIST, (Girls Into
Science and Technology) and WISE (Women Into Science and
Engineering) also encourage girls to pursue careers in non-traditional
and male-dominated areas. Female scientists that visit schools, act as
positive role models, efforts have been made to raise science teacher's

awareness of gender issues, non-sexist careers advice has been

provided and learning materials in science reflecting girls' interests
have been developed. Similarly, the introduction of the National
Curriculum in 1988 removed one source if gender inequality by
making girls and boys study the same subjects, which was often not
the case previously . Alison Kelly (1987) argued that making science a
part of the compulsory core curriculum for all pupils help to equalise
opportunities. Jo Boaler (1998) states that the impact of equal
opportunity policies are a key reason in girls' superior educational
performance. Many of the barriers have been removed and schooling
has become meritocratic, similar to functionalist view, as it is based on
equal opportunities allowing girls who generally work harder than boys
to achieve more. Statistics from a 2006-2007 GCSE exam show that
the gender gap stands at around 10 percentage points, furthering the
idea that girls are outperforming boys at this level of education.
As mentioned before, there has been an increase in the proportion of
females in male dominated areas, such as sciences and engineering, of
female teachers and head teachers within schools. Women in these
positions of authority act as positive role models for girls, showing
them that women can achieve positions of importance and giving them
non-traditional goals to aim for. Female teachers are likely to be
significant role models as far as girls' outperforming boys in
educational achievement is concerned considering that, becoming a
teacher requires an individual to undertake a lengthy and successful
education herself. Statistics have shown that more boys leave full-time
education with no educational qualifications at all. Radical feminists,
however, argue that although there are now more female head
teachers, male teachers are still more likely to become heads of
secondary schools. This could also be counter-argued by the fact that
teaching, primary schools in particular, has become a feminised with a
potentially all female staff and therefore females are more likely to go
into teaching as a job opportunity.
Some sociologists argue that changes in the way pupils are assessed
have favoured girls and disadvantaged boys, leading to girls
outperforming boys. Stephen Gorard (2005) found that the gender gap
in achievement was fairly constant from 1975 until 1988-9, when it
increased sharply. This was the year in which GCSE was introduced,
bringing with it coursework as a major part of nearly all subjects.
Gorard concluded that the gender gap in achievement is a 'product of

the changed system of assessment rather than any more general

failing of boys'. Mitsos and Browne (1998) support this view by
concluding, from their findings, that girls are more successful in
coursework because they are more conscientious and better organised
than boys. Mitsos and Browne argue that there are many factors, such
as girls being better at meeting deadlines and spending more time on
work, helping girls to benefit from the introduction of coursework in
GCSE, AS and A level. They also note that girls gain from maturing
earlier than boys and their ability to concentrate better, showed in
statistics that 62% of girls could concentrate without supervision for 10
minutes compared to the 49% of boys that could. Other sociologists
argue that these characteristics and skills are the result of early gender
role socialisation in the family, for example, girls are more likely than
boys to be encouraged to be neat, tidy and patient. Janette Elwood, in
contrast argues, that although coursework has had some influence, it
is unlikely to be the only cause of girls outperforming boys in terms of
educational achievement as they also did even better in exams.
While factors inside the school play an important part in explaining
why girls are outperforming boys, factors outside the education system
itself are also important. The impact of feminism on girls' attitudes,
perceptions and ambitions and changes in wider society are all the
most significant factors. The impact of radical and liberal feminism
played a partially important part in changing inferiority in females by
challenging the traditional the stereotype of a women's role as solely
that of a mother an a housewife, subordinate to her bread-winning
husband in a patriarchal nuclear family. Although both feminist views
argue that we have not yet achieved full equality between the sexes,
the liberal feminist puts emphasis on the fact that the movement has
had considerable success in improving women's rights and opportunity
changes whereas the radical feminist view highlights that a patriarchal
message is still conveyed through the education system. Both
recognise that feminism has raised women's expectations and selfesteem. These changes are reflected through the media in images and
messages. A good illustration of this comes from Angela McRobbie's
(1994) comparison of girls' magazines in the 1970s and the 1990s. In
the 1970s, girls' magazines such as 'Jackie' emphasised on the
importance of getting married, whereas the 1990s magazine contained
images of assertive, independent women.
Major changes in the family, such as an increase in divorce rates and

cohabitation, have positively affected girls' attitudes towards education

in a number of ways. For example, an increased number of femaleheaded lone parent families may mean more women need to take on a
breadwinner role. This in turn creates a new adult role model for girls,
the financially independent woman. To achieve this independence, of
course, women need well-paid jobs and therefore good educational
qualifications. Changes in women's employment in recent decades
such as the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the rise of proportion of women in
employment from 47% to over 70% and the 1975 Sex Discrimination
Act all encourage girls to see their future in term of paid work rather
than as a housewife, which can, again, only be achieved by the good
qualification the education system provides for the girls. However,
many of the new employment opportunities for women are in relatively
low-paid, low-status occupations. The view that changes in family and
employment, are producing changes in girls' ambitions is supported by
evidence from sociological research. Sue Sharpe (1994) compared the
results of interviews she conducted with girls in the 1970s and the
1990s. Her findings show a major shift in the way girls see themselves
and they future. In 1974, the girls Sharpe interviewed had low
aspirations, they felt their educational success was unfeminine and
believed that if they appeared to be ambitious and intelligent they
would be considered unattractive. They gave they priorities as 'love,
marriage, husbands, children, jobs and careers'. By the 1990s girls'
ambitions had changed and they had a different order of priorities,
careers and being able to support themselves as coming in first.
Sharpe found that girls were now more likely to see their future as an
independent woman with a career rather than as dependent on their
husband and his income. These factors provide incentives for girls to
gain qualifications and therefore explains why their exam results have
improved at a faster rate than boys.
Despite the amount of research supporting either views and factors
contributing to girls improved performance, there is still a limited
amount of research investigating this area. Most of the sociological
explanations identified are not fully reinforced by research evidence or
research evidence that is contemporary. Sociologists are still unclear
about the distinct causes of improved educational performance in girls.
There is also a growing awareness of boys underachievement that is
likely to result in a range of educational incentives similar to the ones
girls received, that are mentioned above, to bridge this gender gap.

This guarantees that in the near future the improved performance of

girls will be matched by that of boys.