Policy Papers

Knowledge and the gendered curriculum: the problematisation of girls’ achievement

Michele Cohen |

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Executive Summary

  • The first problem addressed in this paper is boys' educational underachievement. Over the past ten years, a new 'crisis' has emerged in education. As girls have gradually achieved better grades at GCSE and A-levels, boys' underachievement has become a major concern.
  • The second problem addressed is the educational establishment's more recent criticism that GCSE and A-Level examinations have become too easy. Indeed there seems to have been a sudden devaluation of examinations as such.
  • The paper argues that these two issues are interconnected because of a cultural pattern, the deep-rooted commitment of our society to the achievement of boys relative to that of girls.
  • History shows that boys have always 'underachieved' but, because of the way the discourse on achievement is structured and deployed, this underachievement has never been seriously addressed.
  • Instead, girls' success has been problematised: when girls have performed better than boys in examinations, the examinations have been found faulty.
  • Current research attempts to explain boys' underachievement, relating this to gender issues. What also needs to be done is to effect a profound cultural change in attitude to girls' success and achievement, with very different policy implications.


Since the mid 1990s, girls have obtained increasingly better grades in school examinations, first at GCSE, and then at A- level. Far from causing a general expression of satisfaction that girls were doing well and catching up with the boys, this rather produced what Chris Woodhead (past Chief Inspector of Schools) described as: 'one of the most disturbing problems facing the education system': the under-achieving boy. The sense of crisis was compounded by press and media headlines such as 'Girls doing well while boys feel neglected', 'Girls outclassing boys', 'Learning gender gap reveals redundant male', 'Girls really are better than boys - official'; 'Middle class boys think doing well at school is effeminate' These headlines took this anxiety into people's homes, and suggested at the same time that the world was somehow upside down.

The need to explain girls' superior performance referred to a number of factors, which included oft-repeated arguments about the feminisation of the curriculum and the accusation that the GCSE is structured to benefit girls. The particular mix of course-work and examinations supposedly fits girls' learning styles, their greater 'conscientiousness' and their habits of hard work - which boys tend to lack. The fact that this does not explain girls' better A-Level pass grades was irrelevant at first, since that took another year or two to become manifest.

Since August 2000, a new theme began to emerge. Headlines have proclaimed, 'Exams Chief- GCSEs harm pupils'; 'A-Levels too easy , says Woodhead'; 'GCSE is a flawed examination which is valueless as a means of testing'; 'GCSEs test accuracy, not intellectual achievement'; 'Yes, A-Levels are getting easier'. By 2003, the head of Eton was said to disregard A-levels altogether. Though a Guardian editorial in 2003 asked 'where is the proof of a fall in standards?', by August 2004, the evidence of ever better A-level results led the schools minister, David Miliband, to 'admit' that the exams had become easier. The 'broader range of intellectual competence than was traditionally measured by conventional IQ tests' explains why the 'proportion of pupils, especially girls, achieving five good GCSEs and three A-levels, had risen year by year.'

Why is there currently a progressive devaluation of examinations? Is it accidental that it is emerging at the same time as the shift in the gender balance and expectation of success in examinations? Historical evidence suggests that what appears to be a unique event in the present is in fact part of a repetitive pattern. Underlying issues can thus be made explicit and problematised. History indicates that this perceived problem is at least in part the product of a well-rooted, long-standing cultural pattern, which needs to be acknowledged if fundamental solutions are going to be found.

As the following brief review will suggest, the history of educational thinking in England from the 17th to the 20th centuries has repeatedly responded to discovery of the 'phenomenon' of girls' superior achievement in a characteristic way, which betrays a deep-seated commitment in our society to the achievement of boys, not that of girls. One interesting policy corollary, which has flowed from this has been that girls' achievement has frequently been an engine of change in educational policy because it has always been seen as a problem requiring change in the examining or educational system.

Models of gender and achievement

In an article entitled 'A habit of healthy idleness: boys' underachievement in historical perspective' (1998), I developed an analytical model of gendered achievement. This model was initially developed on the basis of my research on a comparison made by John Locke, the great 17th-century philosopher and educational thinker, of male-female differential performance in language learning. The passage from Locke is in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693).

When we so often see a French-Woman teach an English-girl to speak and read French perfectly in a Year or Two, without any Rule of Grammar, or anything else but pratling to her I cannot but wonder, how Gentlemen have over-seen this way for their Sons, and thought them 'more dull or incapable than their Daughters'.

The context for this remark was Locke's alarm that after years spent studying Latin, boys made such a poor showing in the language. Locke attributed this to the methods used for teaching it, especially rule-learning. By contrast, he had noticed that girls learned French very successfully in a very short time, by conversation. The point, for my discussion, is that Locke simultaneously noticed girls' achievement but made it invisible. What he wanted to show was not how clever little girls were, but how easy it was to learn a language by the conversational method, thus re-establishing the correct hierarchy of intellect. The implication was that given the same method, boys would be equally successful. In other words, in this case, girls' achievement held the promise of boys' achievement.

It is clear that boys have always 'underachieved', and more importantly, that this underachievement has never been seriously addressed. What I mean by this is that though boys' underachievement has long been of concern, it has never been treated as a problem of the boys. The main reason for this is the way the discourse on achievement is organized and deployed. Thus boys' achievement has been attributed to something within - the nature of their intellect - but their failure has been attributed to something external - pedagogy, methods, texts, teachers. The full significance of this becomes clear when the subject of the discourse is girls, for in their case it is their failure which has been attributed to something within - usually the nature of their intellect - and their success to something external: methods, teachers or particular conditions.

Attributing boys' failure to a method has made it possible to explain away their poor results without implicating boys themselves, but implies that changing a method holds the promise for their achievement. Attributing girls' success to the method devalues their performance, because their achievement is always contingent, not a product of their intellect. In fact, very little concern is ever expressed, then or now, about the effects of changing methods on girls' achievement.

In eighteenth-century educational and prescriptive literature for boys, emulation was defined as 'the spirit of competition which encourages striving for excellence', and was one of the most powerful arguments for promoting their schooling , because it was assumed that competition between boys would lead them to excel. However, while emulation was thought to bring out the best in boys, it was believed to be pernicious for girls, having in fact diametrically opposite effects. 'Girls of ability exert themselves beyond their capacity and impair their health. Girls of "slender abilities" become even less interested in learning, and sink into listlessness, inactivity and despondence'. Moralists' main objection to emulation for girls was that it involved the improvement of the understanding rather than of the heart. Cultivating the former had to be at the expense of the latter - for girls. Not only were girls actively discouraged from entering into 'a personal contest for pre-eminence' with other girls, but the Reverend Chirol, for instance, even argued that it was not 'the scholar of the greatest genius who ought to be proposed as an example to others, but she who is most laborious and persevering in her studies'. His point was that while there was really some merit in application and efforts to improve, there was none in mere display of talents which were the free gift of heaven. Note the use of the feminine pronoun. It is not surprising, then, to find, early in the next century in a moral manual published in 1823, that the virtuous girl praised the teacher who was taking 'great pains to check in us a spirit of competition and rivalry' and who urged the girls to be 'more ambitious to excel ourselves, than to excel each other'. The good girl preferred to let others 'get all the start' and stand still herself.

Examinations and gender

The key issue for my argument is not just that in the eighteenth century competition and rivalry were actively discouraged in girls' education while being major pedagogical tools for boys', but that, as the Schools Inquiry Commission of 1868 (a Royal Commission on Secondary Education) indicates, these ideas had actually grown in strength by the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, it was examinations, and the interpretation of their gendered significance, which provided a principal forum in which these ideas were expounded.

Examinations are essentially about competition. John Roach, for example, has argued that exams were part of the growth of a meritocratic society that prized the culture of competition and valued the spirit of contest. But examinations are also about gender. A study by Paul Deslandes of Oxbridge undergraduates' own attitudes to examinations between 1850 and 1920, shows that they assigned an 'intensely masculine meaning' to examinations. The struggle to get women accepted at Cambridge similarly reveals the deeply gendered meanings attached to examinations for all those involved.

In the nineteenth century, examinations, because of the emulation and competition they implied, challenged a key premise upon which not just femininity but gender difference had been constructed in the moral/educational debates of the late eighteenth century. Then, competition and emulation were central to the construction of the masculine mind, but inimical to female virtue. By the mid-nineteenth century, emulation had acquired a new dimension. 'Emulation' and 'competition', the Schools Inquiry noted, are 'naturally ' less useful to girls because of their more 'excitable' and 'sensitive' constitutions, and it voiced the belief that competitive examinations were potentially harmful to them. Emulation, associated with dangers to girls' virtue in the eighteenth century, evoked dangers to their 'health' (a nebulous but usefully provocative concept) in the nineteenth.

While both Miss Buss and Miss Beale, principals, respectively, of North London Collegiate and Cheltenham College for Young Ladies and witnesses to the Inquiry, believed exams would not harm girls, they nevertheless agreed that parents and schoolmistresses should take care that the girls did not overwork. Why the concern about girls' 'overwork'? Assessing girls' capacity to follow the same curriculum as boys, the Assistant Commissioners had noted girls' greater eagerness to learn and the female mind's tendency to develop more rapidly than the male's. 'Girls come to you to learn; boys have to be driven,' remarked a witness to the Commission. This soon became ground for concern not about how boys would keep up with the girls, but about the danger of overwork and overstrain for girls. The publication of Harvard Professor Edward Clarke's Sex in Education (1873) in the United States, taken up in England by British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley in the Fortnightly Review in 1874, gave this concern a 'scientific' basis, and girls became the object of a medical discourse. Since they could not regulate themselves - another female trait and flaw- they were bound to work 'too hard,' with dire consequences for motherhood and the nation. Thus, at the turn of the 20th century, Dr Clouston, Vice President of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, could assert that 'woman's eager nature and greater conscientiousness during adolescence lead her on to take too much out of herself when she is being educated'. His worry was over the stress intellectual endeavor might put upon women's capacity for healthy maternity, risking 'atrophied maternal instincts'.

The gendered nature of the concern about overstrain and overwork was highlighted in the Board of Education's Report on examinations in secondary schools, in 1911. The summary clearly stated that though there were cases where overstrain had occurred in boys, 'the average boy has a greater power of resistance to pressure than the average girl'. Our witnesses, it continued, 'believed girls to be at once more ambitious and conscientious, working harder than boys and indeed working harder than they need... and further, that they are naturally less fitted to stand mental or nervous strain'. In 1923, the Board of Education institutionalised these differences: 'Boys have, as a rule, a habit of healthy idleness' while 'girls are much more conscientious', and their tendency to overwork has to be watched. Girls' high performance as pathology became an integral part of the educational discourse and was a determining factor in the differentiation of the curriculum according to sex and the narrowing of girls' options. Girls had to be protected from themselves, as it were, and from their ambition. Thus, by 1923, the 1868 Schools Inquiry Commission's recommendation that girls could follow the same curriculum as boys had been reversed.

It seems to me that the discourse about 'overwork' is related to another observation about girls made by the Schools Inquiry Commission: girls' 'greater eagerness' to study - i.e. 'greater' than boys' presumably lesser eagerness. How was this eagerness measured? My contention is that girls' 'greater eagerness' and their 'overwork' were also ways of explaining their superior attainments. While boys' underperformance could, with a sort of indulgent 'boys will be boys' attitude, be attributed to idleness and assumed to be temporary- something they would soon get over, so that their potential for success was not implicated- girls' superior performance was assumed to result from their working too hard.

What a historical perspective provides, then, is the evidence that some of the traits or 'learning styles' attributed to girls as 'natural', can be historicized, their moment of emergence identified. My argument is that they are constructs elaborated at specific moments of history, within specific discourses, which are recast again and again, and saturated with new meanings. For example, in a recent article on girls and examinations 1860-1902, Andrea Jacobs explored gender and examinations in a very specific context: middle-class pupils of both sexes taking the school examinations of the College of Preceptors. This College was established in 1846 by a group of private teachers concerned to provide certification, through a Board of Examiners, to male and female teachers engaged in the education of middle-class youths. Jacobs focused on the college authorities' representation of the results, where girls outperformed boys. She analysed the various explanations produced for differential success. She noted that one of the explanations for boys' comparative underachievement in these examinations was that the examinations had been made girl-friendly. In other words, boys' underperformance was concealed by undervaluing, negating or even problematising girls' achievement.

Jacobs' work demonstrates three points: the continuing attempts by college authorities to explain why boys did less well than girls in the examinations, the continuing concern about boys' underperformance, and what steps were taken to ensure that boys would succeed. For my discussion, another key point of her analysis is that because it was assumed that girls' success and boys' failure were due to external causes, girls' superior performance led to changes, year after year, in the structure and content of the examinations. This meant that because of the commitment to boys' achievement, girls' achievement was an engine for change. Boys' failure is not usually acknowledged to cause the change, since the way the problem is articulated is that there must be something wrong with the method/exam if the girls keep doing better than the boys.

What about the present?

While girls' hard work and conscientiousness have been virtually essentialised, boys' idleness is no longer treated as healthy. Does this mean that boys' underachievement is no longer concealed by problematising or negating girls' achievement?

In 1992, Janette Elwood, researcher at the Institute of Education found that '..contrary to popular belief, coursework is not the sole explanatory factor for the better and improving performance of girls in the GCSE. In fact... it seems to have a limited effect in boosting girls' overall subject marks'. Elwood also argued that 'examination papers cannot be singled out as the main cause of different outcomes in the GCSE'. Elwood's results have generally been ignored. Instead, there is now increasing pressure to change the exams. Her research into attitudes of teachers, however, is revealing: she noted

There is some dissonance... between anxieties about girls' performance in examinations, and what actually happens. There is widespread perception among teachers that girls have difficulty with examinations because of anxieties about failures and the pressures of the occasion.

In other words, the same representation of girls and exams as 100 years ago! Elwood, in fact, concluded that 'These attributed anxieties and worries do not, however, translate into erratic performance on a scale that can be detected from statistics.' Equally interesting is what she found about boys:

The GCSE pose a different set of equity issues for boys. Large amounts of extended writing, found in the more 'female orientated' subjects, may be putting boys at a disadvantage but this is compounded by boys' own devaluation of those subjects.

There has also been a new variant on the 'poor boys' discourse. As a supposedly assertive reaction to the challenges of feminism, 'laddishness' is the faddish, catch-all concept used to account for boys' underachievement. In relation to education, laddishness is a recurrence of a long-familiar theme, according to which boys tend to look down upon the male 'swot' as an effeminate figure, and see working hard at school as unmanly. In response, this has produced from the educational establishment the slogan 'it's cool for boys to work hard'.

One researcher, Carolyn Jackson, has been trying to identify motives for 'laddish behaviour'. She has argued that it is related to what she calls a 'self-worth protection strategy' i.e. those boys rejecting academic work protect their self worth or social worth from the implications of a lack of ability and from the implications of being seen to be 'feminine'. The boys' comments reported in Jackson's research indicate that the combination of laddish behaviour and effortless achievement constitutes in effect a way in which boys have appropriated the cultural pattern of concealing their failure. If they fail it is because they did not work. If they succeed, it is not because they have worked- that would make them like girls. It is because of their natural ability. What is not made explicit is that this appropriation hinges on something which is never spoken: the deep-rooted resistance to considering that girls' success, their achievement, might come from within, i.e. that girls' intellect is not inferior.

In my opinion, it is hard to be optimistic about the effectiveness of the educational establishment's slogan that 'it's cool for boys to work hard'. The problem with it is that it entails the potential exposure of boys' failure even if they had studied. In other words, it entails ending the protection of boys by exposing their failure as something that may come from within.


All the current policy solutions envisaged are conceived in terms of having to do something about boys - and possibly about the exams- because boys are underperforming. My research suggests that it is a mistake to focus on boys' exam performance, to the exclusion of a more balanced understanding of the history of how gender constructs educational achievement. I suggest that it is time for those in charge of policy to consider a change in attitude towards girls' success and achievement. This would also entail an equal and reciprocal change in attitudes towards boys' performance. If the educational attainments of individuals of either sex were seen as flowing from essentially the same complex compound of both ability and effort (rather than one sex having a monopoly of one or the other), research could address what it is about individuals' learning styles or exam performances which produces more or less effective outcomes, without resorting to the historical reflex of a gendered analysis which stereotypes male underachievement as under-used ability and attributes female success to 'overdiligence' or overconscientiousness. This might identify important aspects of certain girls' and certain boys' distinctive social experiences, which differentially influenced their learning or effort patterns in schools, rather than largely prejudging the issues as at present.

Further Reading

Madeleine Arnot, Miriam David and Gaby Weiner, Closing the Gender Gap: Postwar Education and Social Change, Polity Press, 1999.

Michèle Cohen, '"A habit of healthy idleness": boys' underachievement in historical perspective' in D. Epstein, J. Elwood, V. Hey and J. Maw (eds), Failing Boys? Issues in Gender and Achievement, Open University Press, 1998.

Michèle Cohen, 'Gender and the public private debate on education in the long eighteenth century', in Richard Aldrich (ed.), Public or Private Education? Lessons from History, Woburn Press, 2004.

Michèle Cohen, 'Gender and "method" in eighteenth-century English education', History of Education, 33, 5, September 2004: 585- 595.

Michèle Cohen, 'Language and meaning in a documentary source: girls' curriculum from the late eighteenth century to the Schools Inquiry Commission, 1868', History of Education, (forthcoming January 2005).

Paul R. Deslandes, 'Competitive examinations and the culture of masculinity in Oxbridge undergraduate life, 1850-1920, History of Education Quarterly, 42, 4, Winter 2002: 543-578.

Janette Elwood, 'Equity issues in performance assessment: undermining gender stereotypes: examination performance in the UK at 16', Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference, New Orleans, April 1994.

C. Jackson, 'Motives for "laddishness" at school: fear of failure and fear of the "feminine"', British Educational Research Journal, 29, 4, August 2003: 583-598.

Andrea Jacobs, '"The girls have done decidedly better than the boys": girls and examinations 1860-1902', Journal of Educational Administration and History, 33, 2, 2001: 120-136.


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