Why are girls in the UK doing so much less well than boys in school science?

Michael Reiss

An education report from the OECD is nowadays nearly always big news, and today’s on Gender Equality in Education is no exception. Gender has always been important in education. What the report shows, which will surprise some, and should concern all of us, is that new gender gaps in education are opening up. These are particularly apparent in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Some indication of the magnitude of some of these gender differences is indicated by the finding that in OECD countries in 2012, only 14% of young women who entered university for the first time chose science-related fields of study, including engineering, manufacturing and construction. However, 39% of young men who entered university that year chose to pursue one of those fields of study.

That statistic won’t come as a complete surprise to many – though the magnitude of the gender differences are worryingly large. But when it comes to the school age data, obtained from 15 year-olds who take the OECD’s PISA tests every three years, there is an alarming message for the UK. We are one of the countries with the biggest gender differences in the science results among school-aged students. Our 15 year-old girls are reported as doing 13% less well than our 15 year-old boys. Of the 64 countries (strictly, jurisdictions as a few countries are represented more than once) that took the tests, this places us 61st. This makes Scotland look like it’s about to win the cricket World Cup.

Many will feel that the findings are hard to believe; they certainly don’t agree with the annual GCSE results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the equivalent examinations in Scotland. However, if these findings are valid – and I suspect PISA is a higher quality science test than is a typical GCSE in science – they are deeply disturbing. We know that students who do less well in science at school are less likely to continue with it and we know that students who take STEM degrees end up glad that they did and get well-paid jobs.

So what might be going on? For a start, this is nothing to do with genetics. Across the 67 countries that took the tests, the average gender difference in science was only 1%. The explanation must be a cultural one. The OECD report has a mass of statistics about gender differences in such things as attitudes, self-regulation and girls’ lack of self-confidence in their ability in science and mathematics. What it comes down to are the messages that girls hear from others and then internalise.

Despite television presenters like Alice Roberts and the increasing prevalence of senior female scientists in the UK (Dame Athene Donald, Dame Julia Goodfellow, Dame Julia Higgins, Dame Julia King, to mention just four), what girls too often seem to be hearing is that science is not for them; or rather, things like human health are OK but not the hard sciences like physics and chemistry – and certainly not computer science and engineering. Campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys are doing their bit to tackle gender stereotyping at an early age but what most girls still learn is that they should stick to dolls and not making too much noise and avoid construction toys and chemistry sets.

Shouldn’t schools be doing more to protect both girls and boys from society’s gender stereotyping? When I trained to be a school teacher, back in the 1980s, we had lots of sessions from sociologists and others about the importance of gender, social class and ethnicity and the assumptions that society – and we as teachers if we weren’t careful – all too often made about pupils. Nowadays, though, beginning teachers on teacher training courses are much less likely to get the depth of treatment about inequalities that my generation got.

The preoccupation among many politicians in power, both under the present Coalition government and its Labour and Conservative predecessors for over twenty years, with students’ school examination results means that schools now have less time and determination to do what they used to do well, namely to produce self-confident, rounded citizens. We need to get back to realising that how school students see themselves and their subjects is important. If we don’t, too many young people, especially girls, will continue to believe that science is not for them and that they aren’t really that good at it – and then they won’t be.

 This post is co-published with The Conversation

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Posted in International comparisons, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
3 comments on “Why are girls in the UK doing so much less well than boys in school science?
  1. […] Michael Reiss noted in a post on the IOE London blog this morning, while teacher education used to focus on issues of inequality and teacher […]

  2. Chris says:

    I think 13 points is meant rather than 13%. Also intrigued by TIMSS 2011 with almost equal gender scores. Further study in causes/reasons lower PISA score warranted.

  3. […] Reiss noted in a post on the IOE London blog this morning, while teacher education used to focus on issues of inequality and teacher […]

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