Let’s hear it for the boys: why the real problem in schools is for males

The Gapminder Foundation, a Swedish non-profit which aims to help eradicate common misconceptions and their consequences, identifies 10 common instincts that lead us to make mistakes. When Katharine Birbalsingh, the UK government’s social mobility commissioner and the headteacher at Michaela Community School, was recently asked to explain why girls at her school were less likely to take physics, she demonstrated at least two of them.

What got her in trouble on social media was that she fell victim to “the generalisation instinct”. She argued that the main reason why girls at Michaela were less likely to pick physics at A-level is that “there is a lot of hard maths they’d rather not do”. While suggesting that A-level physics is more difficult than A-level maths, which girls are much more likely to study than they are physics, is a good way to provoke a fight at a science fiction convention, it’s perhaps not the best way to understand gender differences at school.

But the bigger and more dangerous mistake Birbalsingh made was succumbing to “the destiny instinct”: the assumption that things will stay much the same as they are now. Across the world, great and growing numbers of women are accessing higher education. Since 1960 in the US, the real story of “gender differences in education” is of women outpacing men, not the other way round.

Even academic subjects that were once male enclaves have seen an increase in the proportion of women enrolling. In the UK, although A-level physics remains heavily male-dominated, it has seen small increases in recent years. The number of girls taking computer science, another traditionally male-dominated academic discipline, increased from 9 per cent to 15 per cent from 2017 to 2020, while in 2019 female students taking science at A-level outnumbered males for the first time. The future of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects may well look a lot like medicine, where a majority of new applicants are now female.

The difficulty, or otherwise, of studying physics at A-level is neither here nor there: all the evidence suggests that female participation in higher education is growing and that this growth extends even to subjects that have taken longer for historic male dominance to fall away, and that the number of boys falling out of academia is also growing. While the UK’s data collection regime makes it impossible to say for sure, it is highly likely that the number of girls studying physics at Michaela Community School has, itself, increased year on year since the school opened in 2014.

Given that the past half-century has seen women break into careers where gender differences were once seen as the inevitable outgrowth of physical differences between the sexes, it seems unlikely that all the remaining differences can be dismissed as the product of physical or cultural differences. More importantly, there is no compelling reason to believe that the forward march of girls, and with it the growing difference in outcomes for male and female children, will change.

This is an unalloyed positive for girls whose choices were once constrained through lack of qualifications, but for boys it may be less positive. The decline in the number of “unskilled” jobs means that young men who cannot access higher education face real financial challenges and may be left behind economically.

A growing tendency among graduates to marry other graduates may mean that economic disadvantage goes hand-in-hand with social isolation. And given that the evidence suggests attending university does not just correlate to holding more liberal views but actively makes people more likely to hold them, a future in which most people have attended university but a large minority of men have not is likely to be a politically polarised one.

The idea that the remaining academic areas where boys outperform girls are chiefly a product of sex differences is not only hard to prove, it is a gamble that may have very bad consequences for boys in particular and society in general. Without specific intervention, the deepening underperformance of male children may well be set to get worse.

One reason why the Gapminder Foundation exists is that our tendency to overlook real trends in society can have all sorts of negative consequences. It can mean embarrassing yourself in front of a parliamentary select committee. But it can also mean neglecting new, real and significant social problems because you are committed to believing that an old one is still with us.


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