Gender and Education 3500 words

How has achievement by gender changed since the end of World War 11?


In order to discuss how gender achievement has changed since the end of World War 11, a brief account of the history of the development of British education should be considered.  An analysis of these changes, using different theoretical perspectives along with the identification and evaluation of key policy developments, will be used.  The use of theoretical perspectives will provide a critical analysis of the experience, structures and practice of education.  The aim of this research also, is to provide evidence of inequality in British education and to provide an analysis of this inequality in relation to different social groups using “gender” as an example.


Key developments in education historically began in the late 19th Century during which time industrialization was becoming firmly established.  School attendance was made compulsory by the Forster’s Education Act in 1870, thus allocating the full responsibility of education to the state (Haralambos and Holborn 2008).  This Act was drafted by William Forster in response to the quip made from Robert Lowe that the government would have to “educate our masters” ( p1) after the passing of the 1867 Reform Act.  Prior to industrialization and Forster’sAct, young people primarily learned by copying the skills of adults and within their social groups.  For each sex, the routes of learning differed in that girls were taught homemaking skills by their mothers and boys were trained to hunt for food (Haralambos and Holborn 2008).  .

Forster’s Act determined the beginning of free compulsory education up until the age of ten years.  State provided secondary education came into force with the Fisher Education Act of 1918, allocating the compulsory leaving age to fourteen years.  The Fisher Act resulted in new education authorities with the authority to build secondary schools and administer technical education.  The aim of this Act was to provide a “national system of public education available for all persons capable of profiting thereby” (


In 1944, R. A. Butler introduced the Tripartite System of free secondary education for all pupils.  This system consisted of three different types of institutions: grammar schools (Academic), Secondary Technical schools (Technical) and Secondary Modern schools (Practical).  One of the key elements of this system of education was the manoeuvring of working class people and women into education. Prior to accessing these schools, pupils had to sit what was known as the 11 + exam to determine the level of their IQs or intelligence level.  However, one major criticism of the Tripartite System and the 11+ was that it was an effective weapon for gender discrimination by the down marking of girls aspiring for grammar school education as these schools tended to reserve the intention of being “single sex” institutions with little room for girls.  It was very much the same for all working class children, meaning that they would attend Secondary Modern schools labelled as “failures”.  This resulted in small percentages of children attending Secondary Technical and grammar schools (



Also in 1947, the school-leaving age was raised to fifteen years and then to sixteen years in 1972.  The raising of the school-leaving age resulted in the expansion of education and a sudden rise in post-compulsory education in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.  This led to high percentages of such people furthering their education post-compulsory despite the stigmatization of their failed entries into grammar schools which exacerbated the bitter divide between the working and upper classes.  This encouraged the building of new universities, the setting up of polytechnics and the Open University for the provision of education for adults (Haralambos and Holborn 2008).


There are so far, three key elements in these historical facts:

1)     Robert Lowe, after the passing of the 1867 Reform Act, made the comment that the government would have to “educate our masters”.  There were no women in the House of Lords at that time.  The government did not reform the House of Lords by admitting women until 1957 (

2)     The aim of the 1918 Fisher Act was to provide a “national system of public education available for all persons capable of profiting thereby”.  This was during a time when industrialization was at its peak and there was much competition for employment amongst men, let alone this new female workforce.  The majority of women, if they were fortunate enough to be employed at that time, were usually assigned to low paid factory jobs where they were offered very little credit for their work and suffered greatly due to lack of health and safety procedures and lack of any rights within trade unions.  Although industrialization allowed for women to realize their potential and apply for work, their wages were kept to almost half that of the earnings of men so that they would remain dependant on the “male breadwinner” thus emphasizing the ideal of their place being in the home.  Women’s work was not considered to be a viable asset to this developing capitalist regime and thus it was considered that they did not need to be academically educated (Haralambos and Holborn 2008).

3)     As explained above, there was noted discrimination when marking the 11+ during the time of the 1944 Tripartite System to prevent girls from progressing into academic careers.

These three elements begin to provide evidence of the underpinning gender discrimination in education up until at least the mid 20th Century.  The question now is; has this changed between then and contemporary times?


“A woman’s place is in the home!”  This familiar cliché could be said to be the downfall of women for centuries.  From the Culture of Domesticity which developed during the period of 1780-1850 amongst middle-class women which, in turn, was used as a model to reform the working classes (Bennett and Watson 2002), to the Maternity and Child Welfare Act (1918), women have had their roles clearly stated within society (Williams 2007).  It is also worth remembering that the aforementioned education policies were devised at around the same time as the famous Beveridge Report of 1942, written with the Fabian ethos of the “white patriarchal family” and designed to rid British society of the “Five Giant Evils:… ignorance, disease, squalor and want” (Alcock 2007 p6).  The Report was designed to provide a universal welfare system for all that fitted the criteria of “worker-citizen” with a sense of the collective good and national belonging.  The Beveridge Report was hailed as superior in its legitimacy and reiterated the white woman’s obligation to become “housewives as wives and mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British race and British ideals in the world” (Williams 2007 p150).  So, to what extent should the education of girls reach?


Despite the claims for “equality” and the “fair” distribution of resources for the education of all children, both of these could be questioned.  In order to determine just what exactly is considered as equality in education, the distribution of resources should be examined.  The equal opportunities agenda of the 1944 Education Act prioritized class and the chance for children in the working classes to receive an education.  This was underpinned with the ethos that education would play a central role in the end of ignorance and the equality of opportunity.   Gender was, in effect, applied to the distribution of resources designed to prepare children for roles pertaining to the workforce and economic growth.  The search for a talented labour force became the prime objective and education was powered by meritocratic ideologies, but also in the name of social justice early in the post-war years. (Braham and Sherratt 2002).


But what exactly were these meritocratic ideologies based upon?  Were the resources the same for all children, with no distinctions between class and gender, allowing for them to be educated from the same starting points?  Were their educational experiences the same with equal opportunities of choice and aspirations?  Or was the Tripartite System a mechanism for the selection of children suitable for certain roles?


As mentioned above, the 11+ was part of that mechanism and girls, in particular those of the working classes, were subject to it.  The Crowther Report of 1959 states “girls need to be prepared for their likely futures…the prospect of courtship and marriage should rightly influence the education of adolescent girls” (Arnot et al 1999 p298).  Hence domestic science became a compulsory part of the curriculum for girls and they were not allowed to study male subjects.  The meritocratic system was based upon ideologies of class and gender rather than academic achievement.  The distribution of resources was for working class children. The girls, it was assumed, would leave education at the compulsory leaving age and marry to become wives and homemakers, or mistresses, or domestic servants, or be filtered into such employment as clerical or manual work.   Most children from the middle and upper-classes at that time were taught in public and private schools, therefore, their experience of education would be somewhat different, more intellectual and academic rather than practical. Although there were some working class children who proved themselves intelligent enough to attend grammar schools, they were less likely to stay in education past the compulsory age for economic reasons.  (Braham and Sherratt 2002).


The social democratic principals of Butler’s Education Act were designed to cater for children of different abilities decided upon by the 11+ exam.  However, despite the “parity of esteem” (Haralambos and Holborn 2008 p616) these schools were meant to have, this did not really exist.  Many Secondary Modern schools did not allow their pupils to take O levels and so could not progress any further thus the denial of equality of opportunity.  This further exacerbated the social class divide and valuable talent was being wasted.  In the 1960s, the comprehensive schooling system was introduced offering all children from different backgrounds the chance to take exams and proceed into further training.  Educational priority Areas were developed with the intent to provide additional resources for the disadvantaged in England, but there is no real evidence of change.  Governments follow this form of policy to this day (Haralambos and Holborn 2008).  But did these changes enhance the life chances of girls in education?


Although the opportunities for education were well in place by the 1970s and the 1980s, research showed that girls were underachieving in comparison to boys.  Research carried out by Fiona Norman (1988) showed that early socialization of girls before starting school was, in most cases, based upon traditional patriarchal principals, such as playing with dolls and such activities that further enhanced the stereotyping of girls and women as “carers”.  Boys, on the other hand, were encouraged to indulge in more masculine activities.  Toys developed for boys in those days were more of a scientific and mathematical nature, such as Meccano Sets which involved construction of toys resembling machinery.  This can also be related to the theoretical argument by American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1961).  Parsons stated that the child’s status is ascribed at birth and that he/she is treated by the parents according to parcularistic standards rather than that of the universal standards of society.  A child has to experience a process of transition from one to the other and achieve his/her place in society (Haralambos and Holborn 2008 p600).  So the influence of the parents is an important factor of how a child reacts to and experiences school life.


Further research by Sue Sharpe (1976) in London schools revealed that the characteristic way of thinking by working-class girls was geared towards love, marriage, babies, jobs and possible careers in very much that order.  This allowed for little incentive to progress at school (Haralambos and Holborn 2008).  It is also worth noting the “cultural” inclinations of different communities.  Still prevalent to contemporary times, for girls in working-class communities, sexual experience and motherhood was defined as a sign of “maturity” particularly in economically deprived areas, marriage and children meant independence.  However, in affluent communities parenthood was defined as “immaturity” (Thomson 2000b).  These choices about the ordering of adulthood where described by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977) as their “logic of practice”, meaning economic and educational opportunities would be shaped by these decisions.  For some, it was education first, for others, it was motherhood and marriage first (Thomson 2004 p96).


However, by the 1990s, changes started to happen and the achievement of girls began to exceed that of boys.  Further research carried out by Sharpe in the 1990s, revealed that the priorities of these girls had changed considerably with qualifications, jobs and careers as their prime objectives (Haralambos and Holborn 2008).  In fact, despite what appeared to be bias within the marking system for many years prior to the 1990s, research has shown that for a higher percentage of girls actually did achieve higher marks than boys (Abercrombie et al 1996) The 11+ was scrapped when the comprehensive system of education was introduced in the 1960s to introduce fair treatment of all children.  However, some grammar schools are still using this exam as entrance tests and are apparently just as biased about allowing entry to children from the working classes (


Sharpe’s research of 1990s not only showed significant changes in the ambitions of these girls, but also a great deal of difference in their self-esteem.  They were more self-assured, confident and independent.  They tended to aspire for more professional careers such as consultancy in the legal and medical services rather than in the social service and clerical industries.  However, studies have shown that girls were being influenced to “push” themselves both by their parents to achieve success in their exams, and by the schools themselves so that league table positions could show established improvement.  This can also be coupled with the fact that the feminist women’s movement of the 1960s and the 1970s had women’s rights adopted by policy and translated into law.  This inspired women to expect equality of opportunity and life-chances and also their rights of access to education.  Also, employment opportunities have increased in the service industries since the declination of heavy industry allowing for contract and flexible part- time working hours.  This has encouraged women to gain educational qualifications to degree level.  In fact, Beck (1992) argues that individualisation underpinned by risk and uncertainty in modern society has encouraged self-sufficiency in women and a desire to gain self-construction, their own personal identities and financial security.  He argues that they are “at the forefront of the individualised self; they are “setting the pace for change”” (Haralambos and Holborn 2008 p647).


So, the proverbial “shoe” switched to the “other foot” and concerns began to rise about the performance of boys’ “underachievement” in comparison to girls.  In the late 1990s, the Labour government decided upon a plan of action to rescue what was going to be “a wasted generation of boys” (Haralambos and Holborn 2008 p647).  The gender gap has been significantly broadened due to the fact that girls have achieved an overall rate of improvement at a faster rate than boys over the last twenty years from all social classes.  Attempts have been made to find the reason for this and one answer is presumed to be, with a sense of irony that boys from the working classes, like girls, are subject to the culture and expectations of their communities.  They had just taken a much longer time to reject these values which typify the working class community.  For girls, it was marriage and children and for boys, it was toughness, masculinity and peer acceptance and more inclination to group themselves into anti-school subcultures (Abercrombie et al 1996).


Willis (1977) suggested that the boys, by resisting authority and not committing to acceptable behaviour in school, were preparing themselves for shop floor life culturally.  Their insubordination at school actually prepared them for subordination in unskilled manual labour jobs as they learned to fight for control over their jobs.  As manual labour jobs in the 1980s decreased, the length of the unemployment queue for working-class youths and men increased (Abercrombie et al 1996).  This “lad culture” (Jackson 2006) has caused the development of discourses to try and explain the “problem” up until contemporary times.  One of these, “The “at-risk” boys discourse” (Haralambos and Holborn 2008 p649) suggests that, under the “bad” macho shell, boys are fragile and lacking in self-esteem and they resort to male hegemony as a way of protecting themselves. Thus action to rebuild their self-esteem and reconnection to society needs to be taken.  In many respects, the gender divide has now become focussed upon boys.  In fact, quantitative research showing the “Attainment of five or more GCSE grades A*-C, by ethnicity and gender, England (percentages), 2006” (Haralambos and Holborn 2008 Fig 10.3 p647) shows that in all of the ethnics groups listed, there are more girls than boys in receipt of these qualifications.


So, how have these changes affected policy in contemporary society with regards to gender achievement since World War 11?  The Education Reform Act (1988) sought to reinstate British traditional and cultural values but also made it possible for parents to select their children’s education that would compliment their children’s cultures.  The 1998 School Standards & Framework Act allows for parents to have more involvement and control over their children’s education, but within a framework of raising educational achievement through the “home-school agreements” devised by New Labour in the late 1990s. (Williams 2007)


However, rather than just focussing on issues of gender, New Labour shifted its concern to issues of social exclusion and for the responsibility of both men and women to be in paid work as a defence against it. It has extended its policy of family values to all families regardless of gender, “race” or class, emphasizing the need to accept cultural diversity in an attempt to build national economic solidarity in the midst of globalisation.  For example, the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU), in its argument for paid work rather than social welfare, identified young mothers as a social problem to be prioritised.  One method to try and rectify this was through guidance on Sex and Relationship Education.  In other words, the values have changed with regards to the position of women in society to traditional strong family standards in unison with the need for economical prowess. Policies are now emphasizing the demand for more training and work skills.  Arnot, David and Weiner (1999) have shown in a major research that the social forces of women’s movements and feminism have been inscribed into social democratic and New Labour reformation of the education system and, in many respects have attributed to what is known as “the closing of the gender gap” (David 2007). The argument of is that schooling in Britain has “broken with the traditions of gender order” (Arnot et al 1999 p360) but at the same time has retained the ethic of moral order as a continuity of the past. But, they argue that there is a great risk of dissolving the conventional family for the sake of maintaining social order.


This research has shown through an analysis of key policies and theoretical perspectives of the structure and practice of education that, regarding gender, the achievement of women since World 11 has been phenomenal.  They have battled their way through the restraints of the patriarchial values and traditions and gained rights of access to knowledge.  However, this is not to imply that there is an end to inequality and discrimination. There is much evidence that proves such still exists for girls and women both in education and in work.



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