Friday, 28 August 2009


The media is rejoicing at the news that boys have, for the first time in over a decade, recorded better scores in Maths than girls. Richard Garner, in The Independent, writes - Much research shows that girls do better than boys in coursework. Boys come into their own at the end in the end of year tests. It’s like performing in the Ashes rather than Bangladesh in cricket. Sorry girls! This attitude is skewed, false and, judging from the title of his article 'Onward march of the boys will continue apace', is redolent of jealous sexism. The fact that coursework is submitted before the exam is sat does not mean they have an unequal weighting. Notably, nobody is questioning how the 'bingethinking' culture of exams that encourages cramming might be detrimental to girls' performance...

This nonstory is making the headlines on most of the broadsheets' education sections and the way I would describe the reception of this news is fervour. The Times leads their story with 'Boys have moved ahead of girls in GCSE maths for the first time since Labour came to power, after coursework was abolished in the subject. '. Clearly the view here is that now Labour has ran out of energy and looks set for electoral defeat, the government's sporadic, often fruitless, attempts at creating gender equality can now be scrapped. And finally, as we move into a new Conservative epoch, men will do well at mannish things, and women will return back to doing things fit for a lady.

The success of the boys over the girls this year in GCSE Maths is attributed to the coursework element being scrapped. Mike Cresswell, the head of AQA, asserts that 'It's well established that girls outperform boys at coursework'. Oh! Well, this clearly explains the terrible anomaly of girls getting better grades than boys in most subjects - in getting rid of coursework, the exam boards and the government have found the answer to the pressing issue of male underachievement: female overachievement! It should come as no surprise then, that coursework elements will be dropped from nearly all GCSEs from next year.

The given reason for the curtailing of coursework is plagiarism - this is undoubtedly an issue (my Maths teacher at GCSE helped me to understand the coursework using a show-and-tell technique; he showed me a more competent student's already completed coursework and told me to copy it. I got an A), but it seems as though a certain set of skills are being blacklisted, that happen to be those that are present more often in female students, and which are integral to arts subjects. To be good at coursework, a student needs greater conscientiousness, organisation and planning. How can these skills be denigrated? Maybe because they can't be applied using a calculator or a pipette.

Dylan William, from the Institute of Education, notes that the removal of coursework from GCSEs will disadvantage girls, and reflects an indifference to the skills of planning, organisation and presentation. I would go further, and suggest that the removal of coursework is reaction to the sentiment that males are being left behind, and that the way to prevent this is to put greater hurdles in the tracks of female students. Worryingly, this idea of mine is backed up by the trends in take-up of subjects. There has been an increase in the take-up of maths and the sciences, at the time that the government is effectively malestreaming its course specification. By denigrating the skills that ultimately create skilled arts students - in languages, creative arts, humanities and social sciences - the government and exam bodies are creating a two-tier hierarchy that marks gender as its dividing line. Coursework, if it is as essential to the skillset of the female student as educational experts are saying, will remain in the feminine armoury - hence they will be more inclined to take subjects deemed as 'soft'.

In one sweep, the achievements of female students are being curbed and their skills devalued, and all this with government backing - whilst at the same time, science and mathematics are being prioritised, leading to further sneering at Arts subjects. This affects not only the scapegoat du jour, Media Studies, but English Literature and Language, History, Sociology, and other essay-based disciplines. The motives behind the eradication of coursework are suspect to say the least.

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