Sexism, of course…

I’ve only just recovered from the shock  of seeing the sheer hopelessness of British science education laid bare last week. Indeed, I was so staggered to discover how poorly conceived the current GCSE science examinations are that I forgot that I’d already blogged about the lamentable tendency of the modern education system to concentrate on getting kids to swallow and regurgitate little bite-sized factoids, rather than actually learning to think for themselves.  Leaving aside the issue that quite a few of the things that are being taught seem to be wrong anyway, my point there was that teaching science isn’t about teaching facts at all, it’s about trying to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. At least that’s what it should be, if only the dumbers-down would stop meddling.

Well, I’d almost come to terms with my despair when I saw another article (from Friday’s Guardian) which tells a tale that’s not just idiotic, but also sinister and offensive. Here’s the full text

One of the country’s biggest exam boards is developing different GCSE courses for boys and girls, it emerged today.

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) said it was looking into creating a science GCSE with more coursework in it for girls, and one which gave more weighting to exam marks for boys.

Studies have shown that girls perform better in coursework than boys, while boys do better in exams.

AQA said it would not prevent boys from taking the girls’ course and vice versa.

The courses in English, maths and science could be available from September next year.

Bill Alexander, the exam board’s director of curriculum and assessment, told the Times Educational Supplement: “We could offer a route for boys that is very different to a route for girls.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said it was “extremely dangerous” to get into gender stereotyping. “There are lots of boys who like the investigative element of coursework as well,” he said.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was a “wild generalisation” to state that boys did better in exams, while girls performed better in coursework, but that it had “more than a grain of truth” to it.

However, he suggested that as well as sitting the gender-specific exams, pupils’ work should be marked in part by professional assessors.

Experts believe that this year could end a 20-year trend for girls to outperform boys in GCSEs because many new courses have no coursework. Instead, pupils complete work over a prolonged period, but under exam conditions.

There’s also a longer piece on the same topic in the Times Education Supplement.

Different courses for boys and girls? Are they serious? This is gender stereotyping of the worst possible kind. I find it absolutely abhorrent that anyone in any position of authority in the education system could even have contemplated doing something so offensively patronising. What’s next, different courses for different racial groups?

I sincerely hope that the new government intervenes and stops the AQA from going along this road. Better still, it should scrap these worthless examination factories and sack the profiteering dunderheads in charge who are responsible for turning the education system into a national disgrace.

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24 Responses to “Sexism, of course…”

  1. This is a terrible idea. I’m no big expert on education methods or curricula but it seems like entirely the wrong way to go.

  2. telescoper Says:

    I should say that I’ve got nothing against assessment containing both coursework and examination elements, as long as the former is marked consistently. That would be a good way forward, provided the assessment matched the content of the curriculum (assuming for the sake of argument that the science curriculum had some content). The idea of coursework for girls and examinations for boys is, however, completely idiotic.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    “What’s next, different courses for different racial groups?”

    I’m willing to bet, in this politically correct world, that some universities and faculties, here or in North America, have seriously proposed assigning a race to each student, marking exams indifferently, calculating the mean score for each race, and then ‘correcting’ students’ marks accordingly. Furthermore, a racial quota system for access to some courses is already in operation in some countries, meaning that some people with higher marks are excluded in favour of others with lower. In Britain there is a form of discrimination whereby people with better marks from some schools are excluded from some courses in favour of people with lower marks from other schools.

    I believe that there is no such thing as positive discrimination, only discrimination. I don’t care what colour or sex my dentist is, but when he or she is drilling inside my mouth I am pretty keen to know that he or she passed the course on merit and nothing else. (The quality of the course itself is maintained by taking only the best regardless of all other considerations.) I also suspect that my dentist, if from a minority, would not wish to be patronised.

    Anton

  4. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    As someone who’s been on the required course concerning employment discrimination legislation, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that current UK law makes positive discrimination just as illegal as negative discrimination. In the light of this news item I’d like to see that principle extended to the education system.

    Peter

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Well Peter, some levels of the education system have for a while declined to discriminate on grounds of ability…

    (With thanks to Tom Lehrer.)

    Anton

  6. Sheer madness – I guess this will have to be extended into university education and above.

  7. telescoper Says:

    Interesting thing about physics is that the number of girls taking the subject is relatively small (about 20%) but they are over-represented among the recipients of first-class degrees. Clearly we should set harder exams for the girls and/or easier ones for the boys. Obviously it’s not acceptable just to reward the students who are brighter and work harder.

    Along the lines that Anton is suggesting is the following apt parody of the original story I found on the Guardian’s comment page. It’s not suggesting that female students are less intelligent than their male counterparts, but is merely pointing out where this logic leads…

    One of the country’s biggest exam boards is developing different GCSE courses for intelligent and intellectually challenged pupils, it emerged today.

    The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) said it was looking into creating a science GCSE with more ticky-boxes in it for the intellectually challenged, and one which gave more weighting to real academic work for the intelligent pupils.

    Studies have shown that the intellectually challenged perform better in ticky-boxes, while the intelligent do better in exams.

    AQA said it would not prevent intelligent pupils from taking the ticky-box course and vice versa.

    The courses in English, maths and science could be available from September next year.

    Bill Alexander, the exam board’s director of curriculum and assessment, told the Times Educational Supplement: “We could offer a route for intellectually challenged pupils that is very different to a route for intelligent ones.

    Experts believe that this year could end a 20-year trend for intelligent pupils to outperform the intellectually challenged in GCSEs thus raising educational standards everywhere.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    “One of the country’s biggest exam boards is developing different GCSE courses for intelligent and intellectually challenged pupils, it emerged today.”

    Shurely not a parody? It is already done at university level by having courses on physics, maths, history, classics etc for the able, whereas media studies, social studies etc cater for others?

    Anton

  9. First, let me say that I agree with Peter wholeheartedly. I would go so far as to say that the most important achievement of civilisation is equal opportunity and lack of discrimination and that the quality of a society can be judged by the extent to which this is implemented. With regard to student evaluation, the same scheme should be used for all (and, of course, the scheme should be one which is useful for that in which one is interested, i.e. whether course work or exams are more highly rated should depend on which is better at selecting the best students).

    I’ve also used the “what next, different schemes for different races?” argument when encountering this topic. Sometimes, the topic comes up not in the context of inherent sex differences, but rather in the context of teachers preferring one sex over the other. Separate classes, for example, are often suggested as a way to level the playing field so that the disadvantaged sex can catch up and escape intimidation. That might be true, but suppose the cause was a racist teacher: in this case, most people would say that creating “separate but equal” classes based on race is wrong and that the racist teacher should be dismissed, pure and simple.

    Anyone who has even the most basic understanding of biology knows that racial differences are quite literally mostly just skin deep (mostly adaptations to different climates) and that any pseudoscientific ideas about differences in intellectual ability, character etc are pure humbug. (This is completely independent of the possibility that cultures can be quite different and that I have no qualms about declaring one inferior to another, even if there is some correlation between race and culture.)

    I don’t think the same can be said about the sexes. Nevertheless, I think that lack of discrimination and equal opportunity must be the goals, whatever the outcome. (If there are no differences, equal opportunity will result in equal results, if there are then it probably won’t. One shouldn’t assume that lack of equal outcome automatically implies lack of equal opportunity, though of course it often does (and even more often did). Having equal outcome as the main goal will lead to some people being in a position they don’t prefer, which is of course also a form of discrimination.

    I am always annoyed when some feminists attribute lack of women in a particular field to discrimination but lack of men in another field to some natural deficiency on the part of men and have no problem suggesting that having more women in a particular field would be good because of the positive innately feminine characteristics they would bring along.

    In societies with mandatory conscription for men, this is often justified by saying “well, women have babies”. First, what about the women who don’t? Second, anyone who makes such a comparison probably doesn’t have experience with both. Third, one can’t play an advantage in one area against a disadvantage elsewhere since different people weight things differently. The only solution is strict equal opportunity and lack of discrimination in each and every field individually.

    What about sexually segregated schools? These are not uncommon in England. Isn’t this just more of the same? Once, when discussing (with an astronomer) why I wouldn’t like to live permanently in England, one of my reasons was the fact that not all schools are co-ed. (When he was asked why Summerhill was co-ed, A.S. Neill replied that life was co-ed.) Even if I could send my children to a mixed school, the idea of living somewhere where many people don’t is abhorrent to me. I was trying to convince him how silly an idea sexually segregated schools are and he countered each of my arguments. I didn’t agree, of course, but his rebuttals made sense to him. Finally, I came up with what I thought was the killer argument: “Come on, don’t you remember what you were like when you were 14?”. The reply was “I remember exactly what I was like when I was 14, and that is the main reason I don’t want my daughter going to a school where there are boys.” I think this is the only time I have ever had to admit defeat in an argument. .-(

  10. telescoper Says:

    I have an open mind about single-sex education. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that both boys and girls peform better academically in such schools, although I don’t know how strong this evidence actually is. However, I am deeply uncomfortable with the obvious logical extension into racially segregated schools, which is de facto the way some local authorities have gone. I guess my view is that in an ideal world there wouldn’t be segregation of any kind but state schools in that world would be much better resourced.

    I went to an all-boys grammar school but there was a girls’ school across the road, so although there was segregation in the classrooom it didn’t extend long after the bell rang. I believe the 6th forms of the two schools have now merged anyway. My primary school was mixed, but it has now been demolished.

    In any case tailoring the teaching method to suit a particular group is very different from setting different assessment standards.

  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip,

    Is not “equal opportunity” a synonym for discrimination of some sort in the entrance requirements to a course?

    Anton

  12. “I have an open mind about single-sex education. I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that both boys and girls peform better academically in such schools, although I don’t know how strong this evidence actually is. However, I am deeply uncomfortable with the obvious logical extension into racially segregated schools”

    I think this illustrates the problem. Can one advocate one and refuse the other? And what about extension to rich vs. poor, beautiful vs. ugly, conservative vs. liberal? There are many possibilities. I can imagine that many groups might perform better if they are among themselves, but since school should be preparation for life and we don’t want a segregated non-school life (see the Neill quote above), even if it is the case that some groups perform better when alone, does it necessarily follow that segregation is correct? In other words, is it better to have good performance in an unrealistic environment or somewhat worse performance in a realistic environment? If we are discussing astronauts, or test pilots, then the answer is obvious: what’s the point in exceeding in an unrealistic environment if this is supposed to be preparation for a realistic environment?

    “In any case tailoring the teaching method to suit a particular group is very different from setting different assessment standards.”

    I agree that they are not the same, but I don’t see such a huge difference.

    “Is not “equal opportunity” a synonym for discrimination of some sort in the entrance requirements to a course?”

    I don’t know to what, specifically, you are referring. It sounds to me like you are referring to “affirmative action” or “positive discrimination”. The idea here is that equal opportunity is the ultimate goal, but in practice when the entrance exam or whatever comes along, some people are better prepared because they have rich parents or whatever so, in effect, the standards are lower for the disadvantaged groups. I can see the logic, but I think this idea is misguided. To what extent it takes place, officially or unofficially (or, for that matter, to what extent unofficial conventional discrimination takes place) I don’t know. I’m sure it varies quite a bit from place to place.

    What exists in some countries, and what I think should be implemented everywhere, is that school exams should be the same throughout the country and be marked anonymously. Studies have shown that even if the teacher doesn’t know the pupil, just the name, assumed ethnicity etc influences the marks. Obviously, this is wrong, but there is no obvious way to combat it.

  13. telescoper Says:

    Phillip,

    I don’t quite follow your argument that single-sex schools are an “unrealistic environment”. I can think of plenty of examples where the sexes are separated, in sports like tennis for example. What is behind it, though, is the question of how much of what a school does is academically-oriented and how much about cultivating a general understanding of life. I think the more old-fashioned schools like the one I went to concentrated on the former and assumed that parents, family and friends would do most of the latter…

    Peter

  14. telescoper Says:

    Anton,
    I sense Orwellian fears about the phrase “Equal Opportunities”. The thing that troubles me most about it is that there’s a presupposition that every job category should have 50% male and 50% female employees in it. I’d rather just see everyone given the constant encouragement to choose whatever career path they’re drawn into rather than trying to implement some kind of absurd quota system.
    Peter

  15. “I don’t quite follow your argument that single-sex schools are an “unrealistic environment”. I can think of plenty of examples where the sexes are separated, in sports like tennis for example.”

    In sports there are the obvious bodily differences which make separate competitions in, say, boxing meaningful (but not in drag racing, where in fact one of the most famous drivers is female). Interestingly, tennis is one of the few sports which is sometimes played mixed. However, sports are a small part of school (or at least they should be just a small part of school). Most of what goes on in school has an analog in the non-school world where there is no forced segregation.

    “I think the more old-fashioned schools like the one I went to concentrated on the former and assumed that parents, family and friends would do most of the latter…”

    That might have been the case. However, I think it is important that schools play a role in non-academic stuff as well, since it tends to level the playing field. The obvious question is what happens to pupils without parents, family or friends?

    “The thing that troubles me most about it is that there’s a presupposition that every job category should have 50% male and 50% female employees in it. I’d rather just see everyone given the constant encouragement to choose whatever career path they’re drawn into rather than trying to implement some kind of absurd quota system.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Equal opportunity is, as I mentioned above, one of the highest goals of society, if not the highest goal. Whether that results in equal numbers of men and women (or whatever other categories one considers) or whether it even should be expected to or whether it should (in a moral sense) is a completely different question. Again, it is wrong to assume that the lack of such a 50/50 distribution must be due to discrimination. The goal should be equal opportunity. When that is achieved, what the result is doesn’t matter (and a quota system would then, if one is “necessary”, go hand-in-hand with discrimination).

    Interestingly, there is a similar discussion today at
    Ted Bunn’s blog
    .

  16. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: My concern is that the phrase “equal opportunity” is very hard to define, and that this difficulty is exploited by politically correct people who wish to discriminate in certain ways while appearing not to.

    My question, which is really for employers, is this. Employers commonly claim to provide an ‘equal opportunity workplace’. In that case, will they or will they not offer a job – be it cleaner or professor – to the applicant that they judge most likely to do the job best, regardless of colour, sex, age, faith etc?

    If the answer is No, is that not unfair to the best qualified applicant; if the answer is Yes, what then do they understand by equal opportunity?

    Anton

  17. telescoper Says:

    Anton

    The way it is supposed to work is that when you want to employ someone (whether they be char or chair) you make a list of the essential criteria that the person getting the job should be judged by. When selecting the successful applicant you use those criteria and not others (such as gender, race, religion, etc). There are also “desirable” criteria that can be used as a sort of tiebreak, but everyone who passes these filters should be shortlisted and subequently interviewed. Questions at interview are supposed to be the same for each candidate and likewise oriented towards the written criteria.

    This doesn’t mean the employer can’t be selective, but it does mean that someone who is qualified for the job shouldn’t be excluded on extraneous grounds.

    In my experience the system works pretty well for appointments of specialist research staff for which higher qualifications and a track-record of publications are essential. It’s more complex in the case of staff who are needed to work in a close-knit team. To borrow a footballing metaphor, you don’t always get the best team by picking the best individual players. I’m sure that there are examples of an outstanding candidate on paper being rejected because they do badly at interview and convince the panel they would be impossible to work with! It’s not always very easy to draw a line between this kind of consideration and an unpleasant discrimination against a person belonging to a minority group.

    Peter

  18. “My concern is that the phrase “equal opportunity” is very hard to define, and that this difficulty is exploited by politically correct people who wish to discriminate in certain ways while appearing not to.”

    Maybe this exists somewhere, but my experience is that it is not as big an issue as you think it is (at least, that is my impression from your comment). However, isn’t a justified rejection of exaggerated political correctness often used as an excuse for people who want to discriminate (in more conventional ways) while appearing not to, or at least not wanting to get criticised for it?

  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: In my view the threat of political correctness is not exaggerated. One friend has already been arrested for street preaching that threatened violence to nobody, explicitly or implicitly. I wish that PC didn’t exist so that everybody could forget about quotas, appoint the person who will do the job best, and get on with their own work. In scientific academe I find it inconceivable that anybody would do anything else.

    To stir things a bit, I believe as a matter of freedom that one should be free to discriminate against or for anybody on any grounds whatsoever when spending one’s own money. I regret laws that forbid this. It is when spending taxpayers’ money that I would insist on no discrimination or quotas of any sort regarding race, faith, age, sex etc – because people of diverse races, faiths, etc pay taxes.

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton,

      I’m not sure how the legislation works in the private sector, but many companies have voluntary arrangements that far exceed the legal provisions anyway. This is often because they have to work with a very diverse client base and want to promote a positive image of their company in that light. Others have made the judgement that a better working environment for all staff is one where there are clear rules governing discrimination of various forms. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s anything to stop Bob the Builder taking on his brother-in-law as a labourer if he wants to.

      I agree with your comments about quotas in general, and re-iterate that such things are not part of the equal opportunities framework, at least as far as I’ve had experience of it.

      Peter

  20. Woken Postdoc Says:

    Once upon a time, there was a bristly, shaggy, famous, old professor who sat as the boss of interview panels for postdoc and student posts. He did this a few times a year. Among equally qualified candidates (in objective terms) he had a disproportionate tendency to pick the girl. If there were several girls to choose from, the winner was usually the bouncy- or vulernable-looking one.

    Experienced colleagues observed his leer and his squint, and knew that he was imagining (and anticipating) another new bit of “droit du seigneur.” The sly old devil had no shame about wielding arbitrary executive power, but he always had a glib rationalisation ready. If a male candidate acts pliable and open, then he’s rejected as “he doesn’t have a clue; no firm ideas, and doesn’t know what he wants.” If a girl candidate acts similarly pliable and open, then it’s a positive trait: “she really understands what I want in my team; she’s someone flexible I can work with; she communicates well.” Besides (with a smirk) the old man declares himself a “feminist”.

    Over the years and decades, incidents occur at the school. There’s an uneasy general awareness of preferential treatment in projects, promotions and resource allocations. Occasional complaints about wandering hands are quickly muted. Other cases become consensual, leading to the problem of secret or outright concubinage. In rare extremes, the supervisor impregnates his own student or postdoc hireling. But it’s always hushed up, because he’s such a “big cheese” on national committees, and he’s _so_ vital to the politics of the latest fashionable consortium.

    And so he lives happily ever after (or rather “Carrys On”) as one of the notorious figures inside academia, but sainted to the government and general public. And when he finally departs, he elevates one of his surviving male proteges. This uplifted lad soon develops the same old habits of wandering hands, and the cycle resumes….

    ……

    I can believe that females perform disproportionately well, as research students and junior postdocs. But has anyone statistically checked the influence of the supervisor’s gender and orientation? A few bad professors and readers do try to penetrate their underlings, and to thwart the careers of competing boys. However I reckon that it’s much commoner for a girl to gain _subtle_ advantages from her straight male boss. Many bosses will fall for a bit of platonic flattery or momentary, unspoken fantasy. It’s “chemistry”. They’re “easy to get along with.”

    But the magic buoyancy wears off for mature girls who achieve enough in their research and rise into competition with the big male patrons. Then, I’ve realised, the patronage stalls, and the latent sexual bias pushes her career downwards rather than upwards.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve no idea who your “bristly” old professor is. It’s nobody I recognize. In my experience, no professors have the power you attribute to them!

  21. Woken Postdoc Says:

    The bristly old professor is an anonymised composite of three real, prominent, influential characters who’re active in the physical sciences in the United Kingdom. Worthy of “astronomy look-alike” mugshots. Perhaps not every university department or funding council has an ogre like this. Different departments within the same university can have remarkably different cultures.

    Some of an ogre’s immediate colleagues develop a bit of Stokholm Syndrome, and keep their mouths shut as long as there’s still something else to lose. Maybe this succeeds in keeping outsiders innocent?

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