The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour and Confidence (OECD, 2015)

The OECD have recently released a report (available here) which aims to examine and explain gendered differences in the academic performance and attitude to learning of boys and girls.

The OECD study, which used data from 2012, revealed a number of key findings.  Crucially the report suggests that there is no innate gendered difference in academic aptitude between boys and girls, but that the key factors affecting gendered differences in academic performance are behaviour and attitude to learning.  The OECD also indicates that a country’s economy can be hindered when parts of the population fail to reach their potential, meaning that it is of the utmost importance to tackle a gendered gap in education.

The 2015 report found that the lowest achievers at school are most likely to be boys (although boys are also more likely to be the highest achievers at Maths and Science).  The OECD also identify a cycle trapping low achieving boys in a pattern of poor performance, low motivation, disengagement from school and a lack of ambition, which continues to contribute to lower achievement amongst boys.

There are also significant gendered differences in attitude to school and to learning; boys are twice as likely to see school as being a waste of time. The 2015 OECD study partly attributes this difference to gendered differences in the ways that boys and girls are likely to spend their time outside of school.  Boys, for example, have been found to spend more time on computer games than girls and less time on their homework.  They are also less likely to read for enjoyment than girls are.  Although the OECD report acknowledges that boys may acquire some skills through playing computer games (increased spatial awareness, logic skills, computer literacy), they may undermine their ability to persevere, concentrate and may leave boys with less time to spend on school work.

The OECD report also found that boys are more likely to be affected by socially constructed ideas of masculinity and femininity and often adopt an understanding of masculinity that disregards authority and does not prioritise academic work or formal achievement.  As a result, boys are much more likely than girls to be disengaged from education or to become absent from school.  This can result in boys falling behind academically, which may deepen their sense of disengagement. This issue is compounded by the fact that teachers were often found to have a gender-bias when marking pupils’ work; often they would award girls higher marks in recognition of their discipline and self-regulation in the classroom, even when boys were producing the same standard of work.  This can lead to increased feelings of alienation and disengagement amongst boys.

Furthermore, the OCED report identified that boys from poor socio-economic backgrounds were especially likely to fall behind at school.  Gender and socio-economic background were both found to be risk factors related to achievement and attitude.

However, that is not to say that there are no issues facing girls in school.  One of the key findings of this report was that the brightest girls lack confidence in their abilities in science and maths and are less likely to seek out a career in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).  This is the case even when girls were outperforming boys in science and maths at school.

As a result, this report identified that educational systems across OECD countries are often ill-equipped to help students move from education into a career.  Boys and girls are both often underprepared to enter the world of work after they leave school.  The OECD report recommends that schools improve upon the careers advice services that they provide, create partnerships between schools and businesses, provide opportunities for work shadowing and arrange for speakers who have had successful careers to talk to young people in schools.

The 2015 OECD report resonates closely with the work of Bridge Builders Mentoring and our focus on improving the social mobility and employability of young men from disadvantaged backgrounds.  As the study recommends, we are able to establish partnerships between schools and successful businesses, broker work experience placements and opportunities for pupils, and provide speakers to inspire young people about education and their potential after they leave school.  Bridge Builders Mentoring works to address both a gendered and a socio-economic gap in academic achievement and career success.

Helen Robinson