In a UK context, the relationship between gender and educational achievement – whereby girls consistently outperform boys at all levels of the education system – is both well-known and persistent. More-interestingly, perhaps, this situation is not, as Legewie and DiPrete (2012) note, confined to the UK, given that “boys generally underperform relative to girls in schools throughout the industrialized world”.
As you might expect, numerous explanations for the “gender gap” in achievement have been put-forward – biological, psychological and sociological – that variously focus on:
• outside school factors, such as poverty, innate intelligence or family background.
• inside school factors, such as teacher labelling or different types of pupil subculture.
More-recently, however, there’s been a tentative shift in (sociological) focus towards a more-integrated, holistic, approach to understanding the precise mechanics of differential achievement, one that places the concept of school climate centre stage.
One of the benefits of a standardised secondary education system is that all students, regardless of social attributes like class or gender, follow the same basic curriculum, sit the same exams and are evaluated to the same basic standards. All things being equal, therefore, we might statistically and sociologically expect a fairly random distribution of achievement across a general population.
The fact there is a distinctly non-random distribution – higher socio-economic status (SES) groups achieve more than lower SES groups, girls generally achieve more than boys in each SES grouping – suggests things are far from equal. The problem, as we’ve suggested, is how to explain these skewed achievement distributions?
The concept of school climate involves the idea that a combination of material and cultural factors, centred in and around “the school”, inhibit or foster academic achievement.
The school, in other words, is the place where a range of processes – from social class backgrounds through pupil subcultures to pupil-teacher interactions – meet and interact and the main question to resolve, in terms of differential achievement, is whether or not schools are simply conduits through which wider social and economic inequalities pass. In other words, do schools simply reflect and refine wider inequalities or are they capable of mitigating and transforming them?
Legewie and DiPrete’s (2012) research in Berlin, Germany, suggests that school climate may be a significant, if largely-overlooked, factor in differential achievement, at least in relation to gender (although the research does have wider implications for both class and ethic differences).
Drawing on a range of research from Willis (1977) onward, they argue that one of the crucial variables in both achievement and underachievement is the concept of “gender differentiated adolescent cultures”, developed and reinforced in peer groups, that are “important influences on how children view school, whether they take school seriously, and how hard they work as students”.
In a nutshell they argue that adolescent constructions of masculinity in contemporary industrial societies generally foster a range of anti-school attitudes and behaviours that impact on boys’ levels of achievement relative to girls. While it’s not necessarily the case that these attitudes are overtly hostile to schooling, per se, Legewie and DiPrete argue there generally exists a “peer culture that constructs resistance to schools and teachers as valued masculine traits”. To put this another way, Younger et al (2005) suggest there’s strong evidence that, in the UK at least (and very probably elsewhere), the most valued ways of “doing boy” tend to be “anti-school”, with academic work closely associated with femininity “and effortless achievement as the ideal”.
While this resistance appears in male peer groups right across the class spectrum – upper-class girls, for example, generally show greater levels of achievement than upper-class boys – its effect diminishes the higher up the class structure we look: upper and middle class boys, for example, consistently outperform lower class girls.
One reason for this, Legewie and DiPrete suggest, is that “High-status parents generally foster an orientation for their boys that is at least instrumentally focused on high performance in school. These parents also have resources to intervene in their children’s lives to counter signs of educational detachment or poor performance”.
For lower-class males whose families lack such resources the types of successful interventions common among their higher-class peers necessarily fall on the school. Or not, as the case may be. Female peer groups, on the other hand, “vary less strongly with the social environment in the extent to which school engagement is stigmatized as un-feminine”.
In other words, female peer groups right across the class structure don’t see “resistance to authority and disengagement from school as core aspects of feminine identity”. One important consequence of this non-association, therefore, is that girls don’t see “attachment to teachers and school” as unfeminine.
In this respect, Legewie and DiPrete’s research not only points to the significance of school climate in enhancing or inhibiting boys’ educational achievement, it also offers an explanation as to how and why the gender gap narrowed in their research: schools, as social organisations, need to develop ways to fully-integrate male students into “an academically oriented environment” that constructs academic achievement as an integral aspect of masculinity. Male achievement, in other words, rises in a situation where masculinity is constructed, at least in the school environment, as consonant with, rather than oppositional too, the notion of academic achievement. As they argue:
“The school environment channels conceptions of masculinity in the peer culture, fostering or inhibiting boys’ development of anti-school attitudes and behavior (sic).
• An academically oriented environment suppresses the construction of masculinity as oppositional and instead facilitates boys’ commitment by promoting academic competition as an aspect of masculine identity.
• Lower quality schools, by contrast, implicitly encourage – or at least do not inhibit – development of a peer culture that constructs resistance to schools and teachers as valued masculine traits”.
It’s important to understand here is that the meaning of “academic competition” refers to a generalised concept of achievement rather than to the idea of introducing “male-friendly” competitive elements into the classroom as a way of engaging and motivating boys. As Moss and Francis (2009) explain it:
“Social constructions of gender encourage boys to be competitive. However, such constructions also involve a dislike and / or fear of ‘losing’. Given there can only be a few ‘winners’ in competitive educational practices, those boys failing to ‘win’ academically may disengage, or find alternative ways of ‘winning’, for example by becoming disruptive. The current pattern of boys’ attainment, with a longer tail of underachievement developing behind those boys who are high achievers, suggest that the difficulties lie with motivating those who do not immediately succeed in order that they may engage with purposeful learning”.
While Legewie and DiPrete’s research focused on measuring changes in reading levels, the evidence from other curriculum areas – particularly maths and science – is interesting because it lends (indirect) support to their general argument. A range of studies, from Bamford (1989) through Mac an Ghaill (1996) to Dom and Yi (2018) suggest that, historically, maths and science have been seen by both boys and girls as “masculine subjects”, constructed as such because they are variously viewed as “difficult”, “challenging”, logical”, “unemotional” and so forth.
In the UK, the statistical evidence suggests there is little or no gender gap in achievement in these subject areas, although evidence from studies of male-female subject choice in post-compulsory (A-level) education show that particular subjects and subject groups continue to demonstrate gendered preferences. Sociology and English Literature, for example, have consistently high levels of female participation at A-level, while Physics and Chemistry show the reverse. Interestingly, the label of “science” itself is no guarantee of an escape from such gendered preconceptions: biology, for example, while displaying all the certainty and rigor generally associated with “hard sciences” is consistently perceived as a “feminine science”.
Discussion of the extent to which schools can “make a difference” in terms of raising levels of student academic achievement has arguably become somewhat marginalised in recent times in A-level Sociology, where the role of schools has been largely examined in terms of “negative processes” (labelling, teacher expectations, the effects of segregated teaching such as setting and streaming…).
The concept of “school climate” is one that helps to redress this imbalance by refocusing the debate to suggest that “what goes on” in schools – in simple terms, how and what teachers teach and students learn through both the formal and informal curricula – is a necessarily complex process that needs to be understood in terms of the interplay between a wide range of factors, many of them external to the school, that affect achievement through the various ways they impact on the educational process.
Legewie, J and DiPrete, T (2012) School Context and the Gender Gap in Educational Achievement
Willis, P (1977) “Learning to Labour”
Younger, M, Warrington, M, McLellan, R. (2005) “Raising boys’ achievement in secondary schools: issues, dilemmas and opportunities”
Moss, G and Francis, B (2009) “Gender and Education: Mythbusters Addressing Gender and Achievement: Myths and Realities”
Bamford, C (1988) “Gender and Education in Scotland”
Mac an Ghaill, M (1996) “Understanding Masculinitiies”
Dom, V and Yi, G (2018) “Gender and Subject Choice”