What is happening with our female students?

I am worried about the girls in my history classes. In 2018 Girls were outperformed by boys in achieving top grades at A level. 8.5 per cent of male candidates achieved A*s, compared with 7.6 per cent of female entries according to Schools Week. Perhaps this is something to do with the fact that girls tended to prefer studying modules and coursework (just a guess). My girls were outperformed by boys too last year. Should we be concerned? Well according to one study conducted by YouGov in 2016, over 1/3 of female undergraduates now report mental health problems. This is more than their male counterparts (34% compared to 19%).

Some experts are seeing a rise in female aggression and depression. Girls continue to suffer from eating disorders, anxiety, abusive relationships and self-harm. Young women who appear to “have it all” are being pushed to the brink to maintain their “perfect girl” image. By attempting to excel in all arenas, including appearances, academically and even their hobbies, girls succumb to a pressure that limits them. These “supergirls” avoid risk taking. At the first sight of failure, girls crumble. I know some boys will struggle with this too and we should help them also. But people are so nervous about even raising this issue about girls and I think it is time that we did.

My Experience

Anecdotally, I would suggest that my female students are more fragile than ever. On Friday, in my new school, I kept a tally of how many times I was asked ‘can you tell me the answer so I can write it down’, it got to 7. In one day! Guess what – it was only girls that asked it too. I have had teary female students listen to my honest and constructive coursework feedback. With some, I have to tread so carefully so that they would hold it together without running to the bathroom. I would also argue that the number of mental health concerns amongst my female students have increased significantly over the last 10 years.

What can we do about it?

So what should we do about it? I have for some time, had some success in tackling these issues. Here are my 5 suggestions which might work for you (with some History slant):

1. Let’s end our obsession with neatness.

Let end our obsession with ‘neatness’ when we mark work. We need to stop sharing ‘neat books’ on twitter. Stop giving verbal praise for neat work or mentioning it at parents’ evenings. Encourage mistakes, encourage failure because we learn best when we make errors. If you find it is difficult to encourage your female students to do this initially (and the boys too!), try using mini whiteboards to plan answers and larger ones to structure sentences/paragraphs. If a student needs to draw a line through their work and start again or cross things out – so what?

2. Encourage constructive feedback

Where possible, encourage the sharing of student work and immediate feedback. This could be done simply by reading excerpts of answers out or using a visualizer for instance. Set the ground rules at the start. The atmosphere should be constructive and supportive. Silliness and harsh criticism is not part of the discourse. Peer assessment is valuable too, it allows students to get used to receiving constructive feedback. Ask them straight, what do you need to do to improve?

3. Don’t accommodate every need.

Don’t accommodate every need. It is tempting to just give the ‘right’ answer or answer a question for them during a Q&A but don’t do it. We are nurturing the very qualities we want them to stop. They need to be comfortable taking a risk when they do their work. If a student offers the wrong answer, ask them how (not why) they got to that answer and use it as a learning experience. We need to encourage them to be problem solvers and enjoy that process.

4. Tackling fixed and closed mindsets

Girls are more likely to hold the belief that IQ and ability is innate. Help them understand what is meant by open and closed Mindset and the tools to tackle the latter. There are plenty of resources out there and these could be used as starter or plenary exercises every so often. Mindset posters on the wall can also add to the atmosphere in the room. I have found with girls that simple trick of completing this sentence helps ‘I can not do it’ with’ ‘Yet’ went a long way.

5. We need more historical female examples

Lets have more examples of historical women around our room and more discussion about our contribution which goes beyond stereotype. We need to strengthen their self-esteem though this. There is too much focus in the new GCSE and A level curriculum upon men (often white men at that). Or we might get a mention when it comes to nursing (I know, I am being a little provocative here but it does make me bristle). So if the exam boards will not do it, then we must try and address this ourselves with extra curricular activities and opportunities in our schemes of work.

I would love to hear of any other suggestions?