Boy-friendly teaching ‘will not tackle gender divide’ – Tim Oates CBE

30 October 2015

Tackling boys’ underachievement by teaching them differently to girls is “absolutely wrong”, the chair of the review of the National Curriculum in England has said.

Tim Oates CBE said that attending to different styles of learning was misguided because the kind of ‘learning strategies’ that girls use to get ahead had been proven to work as well with boys.

In a keynote speech at a conference on gender differences staged by exams group Cambridge Assessment – a department of the University of Cambridge – Mr Oates said that only by studying what works and making it available to both sexes could gender differences be reduced. His comments come as a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission finds that white boys from poorer backgrounds have continued to fall further behind at school in the UK over the past five years.

“A number of people have said because we have such a large problem with under-attaining boys we have to have boy-friendly pedagogy in schools,” Mr Oates said.

“The kind of strategies that girls use - ‘I’m not innately good at this, so therefore I have to work hard’ - have been empirically shown to benefit boys as well, so it’s actually through the examination of what optimises attainment and making it available to all groups by which we will reduce these differences.”

Mr Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, concluded by saying that efforts to tackle gender differences needed to take a multi-faceted approach, beginning from birth and right through to adulthood.

“You have to have a life trajectory view, you have to look at it in terms of early identity formation, the development of preferences and the extent to which the education system goes with or challenges those preferences at a deep cognitive level as well as a social level,” he said.

“You have to look at it in terms of the subtle differences in attainment which can make a difference in terms of subject choice, and the differences those mean in terms of access to higher education and the labour market. There is evidence that minor differences in attainment or preference early in education can emerge as major differences later in life."

Mr Oates added that a big policy challenge is the extent to which the state and teachers should challenge the learning preferences of boys or girls. He said that simply going with preferences can reproduce major inequalities and that this is a considerable ethical and technical challenge.

The conference also heard from Tom Bramley, Deputy Director of the Research Division at Cambridge Assessment. His study, with colleagues Dr Carmen Vidal Rodeiro and Dr Sylvia Vitello, found the size of the boy-girl difference was roughly comparable to nine months’ growth in height for boys in Year 11 in England.

In her presentation, Rebecca Cramer, secondary head of the Ofsted rated Outstanding Reach Academy school in Feltham, London, said the gender issue in education was “huge”.

“Boys are massively underachieving compared to girls. If you overlay being male with being a white male, having special educational needs, being eligible for free school meals, then the numbers actually achieving through our education system in this country [England] are absolutely tiny”, she said.

In another paper, researcher Dr Tom Benton probed a recent influential report on the gender divide by the OECD. He explained how in every country that took part in the PISA survey boys were twice as likely to agree with the statement that “school has been a waste of time”, whether they actually did well or not.

The conference also heard that a worldwide gender gap exists in language learning. Dr Agnieszka Walczak and Dr Ardeshir Geranpayeh examined English language proficiency and found female learners perform slightly better than male learners in tests. The day also heard from education ministers from Mauritius and Namibia who explained how they were facing similar challenges over gender differences in their countries.

The event ended with a lively debate held simultaneously in the conference hall and online. Videos of the event will shortly be available to view on the Cambridge Assessment website.