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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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