Today, August 23rd, British girls once again outperformed boys in GCSE results. 65.4% of boys achieved A*-C grades, compared to 73.3% of girls. So why as I travel around the world am I so often told that girls are either not as bright or not as interested in school as boys? Perhaps because while girls are outperforming girls in the "Global North", in Latin America and in the Caribbean, the opposite is true in many developing countries.
In Sub Saharan Africa, lack of success in exams reinforces stereotypes of girls lack of ability and is a major reason why 3 out of 4 girls do not attend secondary school. According to UNESCO, exam success or failure is a result of a complex interaction between curriculum, teaching methods and cultural expectations -which are often internalised by both boys and girls.
The UK has seen a dramatic turnaround since the 1960s when boys outperformed girls. Last year 83 per cent of girls got five or more A*-C GCSEs, compared to 75 per cent of boys. Put simply, girls have caught up to boys in maths and sciences and boys have not kept up with girls in languages where they were traditionally stronger.
Plan UK polled school children to ask why girls get better GCSE results - their opinion that girls behaved better in class is backed by Ofsted research that girls show greater attentiveness and willingness to cooperate in class. In Brazil, Plan's findings have been similar. Macho attitudes in Brazil influence the drop out of boys from the age of 13 who are "too cool for school" while their sisters remain until 18. So Plan is working with the boys using a tried and tested methodology to get them to reflect on their lives and attitudes- to reduce school drop-out and high risk behaviour.
We do know that children quickly adapt to their society's expectations. A recent UK study found that by the age of 4, girls in the UK think they are cleverer, harder working and more successful than boys-in rural East Africa it tends to be the other way around. Children rapidly pick up and internalise how they are seen. In one UK experiment, 140 children were divided into two groups. The academics told the first group that boys do not perform as well as girls. The second group were not told this. All the pupils were tested in maths, reading and writing. The academics found the boys in the first group performed "significantly worse" than boys in the second group, while girls' performance was similar in both groups.
Changing the rules without changing attitudes does not seem to work. The government of Rwanda were rightly concerned that fewer girls than boys were passing the secondary school entrance exam -so they lowered the qualification mark for girls. But girls are failing -because their domestic workload, their attitudes and that of their parents have not changed.
Over in West Africa there is a similar pattern. Last month I discussed with a group of teenage girls in Mali why they had dropped out of school. Tounkara aged 15 explained "When I went up to the front of the class to ask a question the boys would laugh and make personal remarks. I have to cook and look after my little brothers so do not finish the homework so my teacher gets angry. It was less upsetting to leave." In Tounkara's school and in many schools in Rwanda, Plan is working with Mums and Dads on the benefit to the family of educating a girl. They are also training school management committees on girl-friendly schools and training teachers on how to be sensitive to girls learning needs. They then measure results through monitoring exam success and confidence.
There is some evidence, although not enough research, that the girl friendly school movement in the UK in the 1980s contributed to girls' success today. However, failure to also consider what made schools "boy friendly" may have contributed to British boys' lack of success.
It is over 60 years since governments agreed with a UN declaration that both boys and girls have a right to a good education-yet children are still held back by stereotypes of what they can achieve. How to ensure that every child regardless of poverty, of gender, of disability is included in education so they can build the skills they need for life?
We need to change the world around the child -challenging the stereotypes they are inheriting and ensuring schools are both girl-friendly and boy-friendly.
*Study Gender Expectations and Stereotype Threat University of Kent
View Plan UK's groundbreaking new advert, promoting the power and potential of girls at: www.dayofthegirl.org.uk "Mass Construction" was created by Leo Burnett London.
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