We don't need to make exams a battle of the sexes

Every time exam grades are discussed, it inevitably ends up with boys pitched against girls. Well, Glosswitch is sick of it.

So, who’s cleverest? 

  1. Girls
  2. Boys

<waits for response>

If you answered that immediately, I’m guessing you’re a man. If you took your time – umming and aah-ing, adding in various qualifications – I’ll bet you’re a woman. And if I got that wrong? Well, never mind. I’m a woman myself. I stopped getting things right straight after I took my GCSEs. 

According to Mike Nicholson, head of admissions at Oxford University, boys are better than girls when it comes to exams because they’re “much more prepared to take risks”. In an interview with the Telegraph, Nicholson describes how “female students are risk-averse and will tend to take longer to think about an answer. If it’s a multiple-choice question, male students will generally go with their gut feeling”. Apparently, it’s the latter which works best (if not in an investment bank, then at least in an Oxbridge exam hall). “Girls may be outraged by this” notes the Telegraph, somewhat smugly. No, we’re not. It takes us so long to work out what any serious article means, we’re too tired to get cross. Outraged? Not at all. We’re off reading Wonder Women

For many years now, debate has been raging as to who’s the best at thinking – team pink or team blue. For a while it looked like the ladies had edged ahead. Last year, in what was described as “a dramatic twist in the battle of the sexes”, women outperformed men in IQ tests for the first time ever. This, set alongside the underperformance of boys in school and the higher proportion of women being admitted to university courses, seemed to indicate that women had won. Hooray! Go us!

But alas, things are never so simple. There we all were, high-fiving one another, deciding (in a long-winded, female manner) which of us should step forward to claim the Cleverness Cup, when suddenly a report came in –  in 2012, boys beat girls in achieving A-level A*s for the first time ever!  Admittedly, it was by a mere 0.1 per cent, but that’s still a beating, right? And besides, this year the gap has widened. And yeah, girls might have retaliated by increasing their lead over boys at GCSE, but that’s just GCSE. Ladies, we came so close, but it’s no use. This thinking lark – it’s harder than we (wrongly) thought.

If I sound bitter, damn right I am. There’s something about our whole girls versus boys approach to exam results which has been driving my tiny female brain to distraction. It’s not just that – like archetypal cartoon villains – we feminists have been foiled again in our attempts to smash the patriarchy, this time using only coursework, female primary teachers and that patented male role model vaporiser. It’s that this approach is, and has always been, unremittingly sexist and counterproductive. Even when we were winning we were losing. In fact, as long as results are treated as a barometer for UK gender equality, it’s probably better for us girls to flunk as many exams as possible.

For years narratives of male underachievement have reinforced a view that the world of education is being “feminised” (and this is, clearly, not thought of as a good thing). In a report entitled The Feminization of the Classroom Dr Christopher Reynolds argues that poorer outcomes for boys “may in fact be directly related to the gender of the teacher and particularly a female approach to teaching and learning”. Ah, the female brain versus the male one! That ideology which dare not speak its name, apart from all the sodding time! I imagine Reynolds means well and just hasn’t got round to reading his Cordelia Fine, but it never ceases to amaze me how beliefs in essential gender difference perpetuate the very problems its proponents claim to be addressing. Stereotype threat is alive and well in every discussion of the so-called educational gender divide.

Still, at least Reynolds is using “feminisation” in a fairly objective manner. More frequently, it’s used to suggest a form of cultural dumbing down. Here’s what Melanie Phillips once had to say about “the feminisation of education”:

Boys tend to like ‘sudden death’ exams. They like taking risks, pitting their wits against the odds. Girls don’t. They prefer to work steadily and conscientiously without gambling against memory, the clock and questions from hell. Which is why at degree level boys have until now achieved more firsts and thirds than girls who tend to get safe, if dull, seconds.

Writing in 2002, what Phillips is offering is perhaps just a less PC version of Nicholson’s argument in 2013. But she goes on to say this:

Nor is it surprising that girls are taking more exams than boys. For the curriculum has expanded in ways that suit girls rather than boys, with a proliferation of discursive, ‘soft’ subjects like general studies, sociology or drama. 

Now let’s be honest: is it just me, or does it sound as though Phillips is suggesting girls are simply less clever than boys? That we need vague, wussy subjects that allow us to write long, flowery answers, preferably in purple pen with hearts over every letter “i”? This isn’t, by the way, my view of the subjects she mentions – I’m proud of my general studies A grade, thank you very much – but I bet it’s hers (although when I say “bet”, is that womanly intuition or manly risk-taking being used?).

At this juncture, one might also recall Dr David Starkey’s more recent complaints about how history has been “feminised”:

If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.

Hence feminisation isn’t just wussy and wrong, it’s dishonest. It’s creating a world which panders to what women, rather than men, want to know. It pretends that women’s lives mean as much as men’s. We can’t have that. On the contrary, pre-emptive action is needed. Hence, even though men’s names still dominate most exam board reading lists, that’s not how it feels. The monstrous regiment is, apparently, taking over. That’s not what anyone wants, yet this is a pressure that’s been building for some time. 

I can’t help feeling that if girls are allowed, for one moment, to be perceived to be failing – to be seen as the losers again – it at least gives us a bit of a breather from the thinly-veiled misogyny of the “feminisation” rant. We never were on top, after all. Reports of girls outperforming boys in exams might have provided useful outrage fodder for men’s right’s activists, and they might have made us believe, more than ever, that biology is destiny, but that’s about all they did.  

If we want young people to achieve their full potential, we should allow to see themselves as so much more than risk-taking boys or cautious girls. We should allow them to celebrate their achievements on their own terms, not within a framework of mistrust and resentment. For now, though, girls, let’s be happy losers, but let’s also not forget that one day, all of us could win.

Students in Bath receive their A level results in the time honoured tradition. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.