Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Gail Walker: Is it really a good result when boys come tops?

Well, thank goodness the natural order has been restored. Now the lads can all play with their meccanco sets and we girlies can get back to painting our nails.



After all, reading the latest reports that boys had outperformed girls in GCSE maths for the first time in many years, you'd think a great wrong had been righted. The results — drawn from schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland — were greeted as ‘a breakthrough', ‘a turning of the tide in favour of boys' and as the result of ‘a levelling of the playing field'.

And the maths results were echoed in other science-based subjects, with the gap between the boys and the girls narrowing significantly. The change, it seems obvious to say, is due to the abolition of coursework in favour of ‘controlled assessment' (ie, a lot of little exams followed by a great big exam).

And expect a lot more ‘turning the tide' stuff next year. Maths is a bit ahead of other subjects also eliminating — or severely reducing — coursework. The only logic behind the change is that coursework was ‘just too easy'.

It's only coincidental, of course, that girls, apparently, thrive on coursework, which requires consistency, organisational ability, a capability to learn and correct mistakes. These are routinely described as ‘soft' skills.

Boys thrive on exams, which require an ability to remember lots for a very short period, an aptitude to compete on a ‘winner-take-all basis', an ability to cram, and to think clearly and rapidly under pressure. These are, apparently, ‘hard' skills.

Guess which one is being phased out. Yep, it’s Back to the Future. And it's not even as if GCSEs were all course work. Nope, they were a mixture of coursework and exams.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but in real life, you're rarely put in a room and timed against the clock. This only happens when you’re doing an exam. Real life is more about organisation, research, learning through trial and error.

Yeah, but coursework makes it easy to ‘cheat', say critics. True, but wasn’t all that old-skool stuff like memory tricks, prepared answers, analyses of past papers, really a fancy sleight of hand?

And it was such a short period, wasn't it, when girls were allowed to be on top? A few years of them outstripping boys and we were drowning in thought pieces about the ‘lost male generation', ‘the feminisation of society', how boys are being thrown on the scrap heap even before hitting the job market. Even Panorama joined the ‘national debate’.

Indeed, today it is just an accepted truism that GCSEs were, by |their very nature, discriminatory against boys.

Now, we must give them back their ball. Strange, though, how there was no ‘national debate' when boys outstripped girls. Lost generations of young men: newsworthy. Lost generations of young women: a deafening silence.

What's the betting if the new system is proven to be a boon for boys and a barrier for girls, it will take a hell of a lot longer than a few years for corrective action to be taken?

Yes, there is much wrong with our exam system but — call me a |tad paranoid — the real media attacks seem to have coincided |with girls parking their tanks on the boys' lawn.

The truth is there are strengths and weaknesses in both methods of assessment. Surely, though, there has to be a better way than careening helplessly between the two |approaches.

Still, the gloating tone of much of the coverage is disturbing. It will be interesting to see how it pans out.

In the meantime, well, done boys. But let's not forget there's just a hair’s breath between a ‘level playing field' and ‘putting the girls in their place'.

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