Tuesday 20 March 2018

Girls top class, but system biased towards boys who do sums better

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Sinead Ryan

Sinead Ryan

Atrociously poor family planning found me with a Junior and Leaving Cert in the house in the same year. We barely survived. They bickered over study space, stationery, chairs and who got temporary ownership of the family pet as a 'calming device'.

Any parent will tell you boys study differently to girls. The latter have colour-coded sticky notes, luminous highlighters, excel spreadsheets and notes in alphabetical and cross-referenced chronological folders. The lads roll out of bed onto piles of screwed up paper and cross their fingers the morning of the exam.

Is that a generalisation? Perhaps. In all our striving for equality, is it time to throw in the towel and admit that actually, when it comes to curriculum subjects, they're just different? Does it go against the sisterhood to admit the whole left brain/right brain stuff?

Yet again this year, girls are to the fore of Leaving Cert results. They top their male classmates across the board. History, geography, English, Irish, indeed all languages (bar Japanese for some reason), art, biology, music and theology. They're winners, in some cases by a long mile, leaving the boys trailing.

The lads, meanwhile, continue to show their prowess at the narrower skill set of maths, engineering, accounting and chemistry.

But the consequence of this skewed reality is that it is the boys who will end up with the lion's share of bonus points for being better at sums, and given preferential treatment for targeted STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) courses, which are where the big bucks reside. The system is simply designed against women to reward the minority getting points in the 'right' subjects rather than incentivising those who show a broader and more rounded ability.

The Government has been intent for years on shovelling kids into maths and science subjects, ignoring, by extension, the linguists, artists and writers Ireland used to pride itself on.

It's all about meeting multi-nationals' quota of bright boys so that our foreign direct investment strategy stays on track.

So are lads simply better at boys' subjects then and if so, is it fair to promote the few they are scoring higher in to the detriment of the fantastic, hard-working girls who out-perform them in almost every other sphere?

How and when did Pythagoras's theorem become more important than Hamlet's soliloquy, for instance? Who decided algebra is more vital to life success than Seamus Heaney's allusions?

Why is society better served at knowing how levers are applied rather than how history has taught us as a nation?

Universities, increasingly geared toward courses from which the tech and pharma companies will hoover up their crop of students, continue to push maths-based courses, so the squeeze on humanities or arts gets ever tighter.

Arts degrees that a student getting 380 points would have qualified for a few years ago are now routinely 500 - points that simply aren't needed for the content, which in itself leads to higher drop-out rates as unsuitable candidates apply.

Our skewing of the system has resulted in some kids getting to the top in STEM, as per Government policy, but leaving others feeling stuck with 'second-tier' courses which simply aren't valued to the same degree.

Maybe it's time we woke up and rewarded girls for their better results instead of giving boys an artificial leg up. English literature or music is certainly as timeless, valuable and merited as maths. But not as quantifiable to the bean-counters in the Department of Education.

Irish Independent

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