HL Deb 24 March 2004 vol 659 cc691-3

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

What actions they are taking to close the academic achievement gap between boys and girls at school, given that in 2002 44 per cent of boys compared with 55 per cent of girls achieved five or more GCSE/ GNVQ passes at grades A to C.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, narrowing the gap in achievement is a key objective of our national strategies, which are designed to improve teaching and learning through from the foundation stage to GCSE. They emphasise engaging, interactive teaching. We are also identifying good practice through innovative school collaborative projects such as the Breakthrough Programme for Raising Boys' Achievement or the Playing for Success Centres, which harness the power of sport to boost skills and motivate boys.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for that encouraging Answer. Given that some schools, such as Kirklees School in Yorkshire and Notley High School in Braintree, have shown that the achievement gap between girls and boys can be narrowed quite dramatically—in the former case from 17 per cent to 3 per cent and in the latter by two-thirds—and that this is a matter of teaching, organisation and school ethos, is it not right that pressure should be brought to bear on all schools, or at least encouragement should be given to them, to follow practices that will give a fair opportunity for boys to achieve the education that they need and employability in the world in which they will have to grow up?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for replacing the word "pressure" with "encouragement"; that is important. In particular, the Raising Boys' Achievement project, which is building on the work of 60 schools that have been innovative in this area, is designed to do what I believe the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, seeks: to spread good practice, look at what has been successful in those schools and enable us to achieve that. We have also developed a network of collaboration between 23 schools that have shown outstanding achievement in this field in order to ensure that we learn the lessons and can spread that practice to all schools.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the achievement gap at GCSE is related to a literacy gap which is already significant at the age of nine and which is as internationally widespread as it is puzzlingly recent? The noble Baroness will of course be familiar with research at the universities of Hull and St Andrews by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, and elsewhere by Marlynne Grant, showing that this literacy gap can be entirely closed by a switch of teaching method. Will the Minister therefore consult with experts such as Jennifer Chew and Bonnie Macmillan about evidence that the gap is worst in countries that have neglected phonics teaching over recent years?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, we have emphasised phonics teaching in the early stages, particularly key stage 1 and the early years, for precisely the reasons that he has identified. As regards international comparisons, it is worth saying that the gender gap in England is significantly smaller than in most other OECD countries. I do not say that because we do not have much work to do, but it is none the less interesting. We are working with a number of different researchers in the field to see what we can do to enhance teaching and learning experiences. It was pleasing to see that at key stage 3 the gap between girls and boys is beginning to close.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, does the Minister plan to use the eight outcomes for children known in Portsmouth, where traditionally girls have outstripped boys, which identify the importance of positive role models, support at home and aspirations for achievement, in reversing the statistics outlined in the noble Lord's Question?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is important to look at the significant factors that affect achievement more generally. We know that gender is one of them, but, as I believe the right reverend Prelate was saying, other issues concerning social class, ethnic origin and the local context, for example, have a bearing on the achievement of children. It is important that we keep those factors in mind also.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, is it not a fact that we are now seeing a reversal of the traditional picture of boys beating girls at GCSE and A-level? The picture has been reversed by the kind of programmes put into operation in schools to bring up girls' performance and to even out the difficulties. I hope that the Minister will agree that the question of culture and ethos, and what we must aim at, is a balance between what is attractive to young women and what is attractive to young men, so that we do not have one soaring far above the other but rather we try to bring them along together.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, my ambition is that they should soar together. In the 1970s, in particular, work was focused on girls' attainment and, more particularly, their participation. Noble Lords will remember that girls' participation in maths, science, technology and such subjects was an issue in the 1970s.

That has been addressed through the national curriculum and other work. As always, the critical factor is to look at what is happening in children's achievement to identify whether there are issues of gender, socio-economic grouping and so on, and to find strategies to enhance their ability to achieve.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the changes that has taken place since the time when we were worrying about girls underachieving is the introduction of continuous assessment in GCSE examinations, with the shift away from the one-off, two or three hour examination? Has she any evidence to suggest that this may have had some effect on the achievement of boys and girls?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is not that girls were underachieving, it is that girls were not participating. They achieved very well in the subjects that they took. It was obvious that it was being suggested to girls that there were certain subjects that might be more appropriate for them. We should be clear about that. I do not have any evidence specifically about what the noble Baroness was asking. We know that the structure of the literacy hour—with clear outcomes and the way that it is focused around achievement—is having some impact on boys' attainment. There may be lessons that we can draw from that, which fits in a sense with what the noble Baroness was saying about the way in which boys learn, which we need to do more to understand.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I hear what the Minister is saying, but does she agree that statistics show that girls do better in single-sex schools?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I asked a specific question this morning about whether there was such an effect with single-sex schools. It is incredibly difficult to isolate that as an issue. There is conflicting evidence over whether examination results are better for pupils taught in single-sex schools. It is clear that where staff are fully committed to single sex education, where there is extensive preparation of staff and students, and where there are gender-specific teaching strategies, the outcomes can be greater.

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