‘Wokeism’ hitting efforts to tackle gender gap in schools

“Wokeism” is impeding efforts to tackle the chronic gender gap in pupil performance because of a tendency to attack or suppress opinions that highlight the possible link with innate sex differences, according to a leading expert.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, told The Herald it was vital to focus attention on “the fact that boys are not fully developing their potential in school”. He is now urging Nicola Sturgeon to establish a commission that would investigate the trend, stressing Scotland could “lead the way”.

The Scottish Government said the issue would be reviewed as part of a wider reform of qualifications and assessment.

Professor Smithers, who was previously a lecturer in biological sciences at London University, also said there was reluctance to discuss reforms that might be needed to ensure boys and girls can fully realise their learning potential.

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“A lot of emotion is attached to discussing sex differences,” he said. “When I said, look, girls are regularly doing much better in school than boys, we ought to take a close look at this and try to find out why, separating out the big effects from those which are merely plausible, one of the responses was, I was wrong to bring this up, fundamentally wrong to focus on different groups within society.”

Professor Smithers also said “wokeism” was preventing a frank discussion about the “inherent differences” between individuals, as well as the implications and consequences these might have for education outcomes.

He added: “Males tend to be stronger and that enabled them to dominate life and create a social system that was favourable to them.

“Females in the last 100 years have fought back strongly about this and made considerable gains. The thought is that by switching attention, or giving equal attention to boys, some of those gains might be lost.”

His remarks come after publication of the 2021 Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) results, which reveal a growing gap in the distribution of top marks.

Following exam cancellation due to the effects of Covid-19, grades were determined by teacher judgement supported by assessment evidence. This was also the case in 2020, although final results then were based on both inferred and demonstrated attainment.

HeraldScotland: Figures indicate a growing gender divide in the distribution of A grades at Higher and Advanced Higher level.Figures indicate a growing gender divide in the distribution of A grades at Higher and Advanced Higher level.

The 2021 statistics show that, at Higher level, the difference between male and female candidates in the proportion of grade A awards widened to nearly 10% (42.2% versus 52.1%, respectively).

This compares with a gap of 4.7% in 2019 – the last year in which a standard exams diet was held. Figures for Advanced Higher show an even greater relative increase, from 0.5% to 5.1%.

Analysis of the A-C attainment rate since 2017 at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher level also reveals a persistent divide, although there have been some signs that it could be narrowing.

In a blog, Professor Smithers said the gender gap could be seen at all levels of education from nursery to university, and that the issue was “so serious as to demand a major inquiry”.

He also told The Herald that, all too often, those seeking to shine a light on the issue were coming under attack.

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“I did a number of broadcasts during the results season, and… during one interview, I mentioned the idea that probably innate differences were involved and the interviewer looked horrified and said, wasn’t I afraid of being cancelled?”

He added: “If women are underrepresented in science there must be campaigns to put it right. But as far as men are concerned, well, they come out on top anyway and they can take care of themselves.

“What is happening and what I’ve been trying to do is to focus attention on the fact that boys are not fully developing their potential in school.”

When asked to explain why there is insufficient focus on the issue, Professor Smithers said: “There’s another move within society which is wokeism and groups are growing up which are detecting microaggressions and taking offence at every opportunity. It has led to an ethos of being sensitive, not saying anything that could conceivably upset anybody.

“Among the sorts of things you can’t mention in polite speech are the inherent differences between people. It can be thought a microaggression if you say that one group is biologically different from another group.

“Well, it’s plainly the case when you come to males and females because they are built differently.

HeraldScotland: Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville. The Scottish Government has said issues such as gender bias will be reviewed as part of a wider reform of qualifications and assessment. Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville. The Scottish Government has said issues such as gender bias will be reviewed as part of a wider reform of qualifications and assessment.

“There clearly are differences there but people are shying away from them and that’s why I think we need a high level, high-powered commission, composed of a range of people, that can freely address the issues.”

Professor Smithers drew attention to outcomes in reading and numeracy as an example of the way in which the education system might be failing to develop the “natural” talents of all pupils.

He said: “In tests of very young children, boys are actually ahead in numerical skills and spatial skills, but in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s comparisons of 15-year-olds there is only a small gap in their favour, in stark contrast with girls’ superiority in reading.

“This suggests education is tilted in favour of girls, with their natural abilities developed much more successfully than those of boys.”

Addressing possible links between the use of teacher judgement and signs of an increasing gender gap in A grade attainment at Higher and Advanced Higher level, Professor Smithers said: “I think it would be that girls are more conscientious in doing the work. So they would have put in all the assessments and they would have been able to demonstrate that they had been achieving at a high level throughout the courses. And also the teachers would be reacting to their hard work favourably.”

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He added: “When I’m talking in this fashion about boys and girls, I’m dealing with tendencies, not that it applies to every boy or every girl.”

The professor acknowledged that a UK-wide commission on the issue was unlikely due to political and constitutional factors, and differences between education systems. However, he urged the First Minister to set up an inquiry north of the Border.

“I think it would be a good idea for Scotland and it could lead the way because I’m not sure the UK Government, as far as England is concerned, is persuaded that a highlevel independent inquiry is necessary,” he added.

“If it established a high-level commission within Scotland, it could really show what was possible and might even influence what happens in England.

“What’s really important from Scotland’s point of view is that it could lead the way here.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “This issue will be reviewed as part of the reform of qualifications and assessment. We are also working directly with schools and early learning and childcare settings to highlight practical ways to address gender bias, unconscious bias and stereotyping to tackle inequity in learning.” 

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992