The myths that trap girls . . . and boys

How women achieve at school because they've had it "bred into them"

Some news stories are guaranteed to send a portentous chill down my spine. On reading that women make up 57 per cent of UK university students, for instance, I felt the usual shiver, and braced myself accordingly.

Sure enough, there followed the old arguments about "feminisation" of schools: the contention that the education system is institutionally non-competitive and unchallenging, and therefore skewed - not against all pupils, but specifically against boys.

In the Daily Mail, for instance, the journalist Jill Parkin suggested that schools now push "a feminised curriculum that benefits girls in almost every single regard . . . Instead of the make-or-break sprint to the exam deadline, boys have to endure stultifying coursework. This system of continuous assessment means that anyone who can call up Google on a computer can cut and paste answers from the internet at home. Girls, with their more patient approach to learning, thrive under such a system."

These arguments have been kicking around for years, and they tend to use "feminised" as the ultimate pejorative. The theory runs that boys have been let down by a system that favours the dull over the creative, the diligent over the flamboyant, form-fillers over the daring, the politically correct over the verbally dextrous. In the phrase of the education lecturer Bethan Marshall, these arguments paint female students as being "so dull that they don't mind being bored to death". In so doing, they undermine all those students who succeed in today's system - girls and boys. In agreement with Parkin, the columnist Melanie Phillips argued a few years back that "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."

The problem with these arguments is that they cannot properly account for the reality that, even under old exam systems - the O-level and the eleven-plus - which did not rest on coursework elements or modular assessment, girls consistently outperformed boys.

The theory fails in the context of the current system, too. The kids of today are actually the most examined ever, and it is rare for coursework to make up more than 30 per cent of the assessment criteria for any academic GCSE or A-level. Given such percentages, boys, with their supposed love of "sudden-death" exams, should actually be at a distinct advantage. However, they clearly are not.

There is a debate to be had over the relative achievement of boys and girls - it doesn't benefit any of us for it to fall out of kilter - but this isn't it. There is no reason women's achievements have to be done down simply to bolster the case for those boys who are failing. And the tone of these arguments is particularly annoying because it undermines ideas often mentioned in the same articles, put forward for the benefit of male students, but which clearly would benefit both boys and girls. Who could argue, for instance, against the idea of having more male teachers in schools, giving teachers more freedom and allowing the inclusion of more sport in the timetable?

I have my own theory about why girls outperform boys, and it has nothing to do with the "feminisation" of schools, or essentialist ideas of boys as "risk-takers" and girls as "safe" or "pliant". I don't think it comes down to inherent differences between men and women. As women, we face our education in the knowledge that our routes to achievement have historically been muddied and obscured. My mother, for instance, was one of the many women who scored grades that should have been high enough to take her to grammar school, but who saw a lower-achieving boy sent instead, to even out the student numbers. We carry that history with us, as well as the knowledge that, whatever our educational achievements, we face a pay gap of 17 per cent, even in our first jobs out of university.

Women are achieving at school because we have had it bred into us that the only way to get ahead is to work not just hard, but hardest. We achieve precisely because we are competitive; to argue the opposite is faintly ridiculous. Boys, by comparison, are being held back by a historical, and damaging, sense of entitlement (for those from more affluent backgrounds) or alienation (for those from poorer backgrounds). This is the worrying, and worsening, imbalance that needs to be tackled - and quickly.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia