Assess the claim that gender differences in educational achievement are primarily the ‘result of changes in wider society’ Essay

Sociology explanations have suggested many different reasons for the gender differences in educational achievement.

In the 1980s, sociologists spoke about how girls are underachieving due to education being controlled and dominated by men (Spender, 1983) but in more recent years, there have been worries that it is the boys who are falling behind. In recent statistics, it is shown that girls are gaining better results at GCSEs and also are more likely to go onto higher education. The curriculum has also become very gender bias, for example certain subjects are seen to be either for boys or girls. For instance girls tend to go for communication subjects such as English and Sociology whereas boys tend to go for the technical ones such as Maths and Physics. It is said by many sociologists that the difference achieving levels can be due to factors occurring in the school.

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One internal factor is labelling. To label someone is to attach a meaning or definition to them. This is especially done by teachers as they usually label boys negatively with a phrase such as ‘silly boys’ or associate pranks as ‘schoolboy pranks’ or even ask them questions like ‘why you can’t you sit nicely like the girls?’. It has been said these phrases tend to slip off the tongue. It has even led to boys saying that they are more likely to pick out girls as high achievers.

Setting and streaming is one more internal factor that is linked to affecting achievement. Sets refer to the subject ability based groups and streams refer to groups of students taught for all subjects in the same ability group-they are both forms of labelling. Some studies show that girls and boys are divided into different groups purely because of their gender. One subject that is acceptable is Physical Education of course but, considering that this is only one subject, it can clearly be argued that the rest of the subjects have no excuse.

Another internal factor is the hidden curriculum which is theorised by Marxist sociologists. The hidden curriculum refers to what’s taught in schools but does not conform to the official curriculum and which is not openly discussed or agreed upon. Examples of these are obedience, politeness and equality. There is an unspoken agreement, for an example, that if you look at which students constitute the bottom sets in school, that they will be primarily working class boys.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is another internal factor that can be linked to gender differences in achievement. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that comes true simply by virtue of it being made and some sociologists argue that labelling can affect pupil’s achievement by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rosenthal and Jacobson did a study of a primary school to see if it was the case by giving teachers misleading scores of the student’s abilities and they’d identified 20% of them at ‘spurters’, but a year later a half of this group had made significant progress. This shows that not all students actually live up to their self-fulfilling prophecy as they had made progress, instead of sticking to their given label of giving up.

Last but not least, pupil subcultures are an internal factor that affects achievement. Subcultures are the end result of the labelling process as, proven by Paul Willis’ study in ‘Learning to Labour’, it has been found that it is mainly boys who end up in anti-school subcultures. An anti-school subculture is where a group of individuals go against the main culture (norms and values) of the school. Most children begin school at the age of five. While most girls are mature enough by this age, many boys are not. They have not fully developed their verbal and social skills and have difficulty adjusting to the school environment. These youngsters become frustrated and do not adjust to failures as well as their more mature counterparts. Studies have also shown that boys learn much easier with hands-on activities than from written material. Due to the reduction of funding in many school districts, many of these institutions lack the money to include creative projects as part of the learning process. So, because this all commences at an early age, it can most definitely be argued that it is what starts the occurrence of anti-school subcultures in later years. However, feminists would argue that it is the external factors that have the larger impact.

External factors such as the impact of feminism and girl’s changing ambitions could have a large influence on gender differences in educational achievement. Since the 1960’s feminism has challenged the traditional stereotypes of a woman’s role as mother and housewife with a patriarchal family. Feminism has also raised girl’s expectations and ambitions with regard to careers and family. These changes are partly reflected in media images and messages. A good illustration of this is McRobbie’s comparison of a girls’ magazine in the 1970’s, where they stressed the importance of marriage to the 1990’s, where it was more focused on career and independence. Changes in the family and employment are also producing changes in girl’s ambitions. This is supported by Sue Sharpe’s research where she compared the results of interview she carried out with girls in the 1970’s and the girls in the 1990’s. In the 1970’s the girls had low aspirations and gave their priorities as love, marriage, husbands and children before careers. However, in the 1990’s girls were more likely to see their future as independent women with a career, rather than being dependant on a husband and his income. Despite the feminist movement saying that we have not yet reached full equality between the two sexes, woman’s rights have been substantially improved.

Within the home, another external factor that could be having a colossal effect on girls achieving higher is parents’ expectations and ideologies. Especially in a middle class family, adults (parents) are constantly trying to climb the rigid ladder of social hierarchy- trying to achieve and maintain a high status. Because of this pressure, girls feel as if they need to work harder in order to ‘make their parents proud’. Nevertheless, when compared with boys, girls are far more capable of handling the pressure that parents give when wanting their child to get a well-paid and high class job such as a doctor, army solider or on the police force. Furthermore, the decline in traditional male jobs explains why many boys are underperforming in education.

Social class is probably the most influential outside school factor that affects the educational achievement between genders. There are major differences between the levels of achievement of the working class and middle class. Generally the higher the social class of the parents the more successful a child will be in education. Social class inequality begins in primary school and becomes greater as you move up through the education system with the higher levels of the education system dominated by middle and upper-class students. There are many other factors that can explain differences in educational achievements for different social classes, these include material explanations which put the emphasis on social and economic conditions, cultural explanations which focus on values, attitudes and lifestyles and factors within the school itself.

So, in essence, it would appear that it is biased towards the internal factors being the most influential on gender differences in educational achievement.

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