Cast your minds back a moment, to the ancient days of 2014 and 2015. If you’re living in England you will probably remember the TV adverts, the billboards, the posters on the sides of bus shelters, boldly proclaiming that THIS GIRL CAN.
The campaign was the work of Sport England, a quango funded through the Department of Culture Media and Sport with money from the treasury and the National Lottery. It didn’t come cheap, at £10 million or thereabouts, but by all accounts it was highly successful.
This Girl Can had its critics, of course. Some commentators argued that using the word ‘girl’ was demeaning and suggested that the campaign was overly sexualised and objectified its participants. The complaints, however, were about the delivery, not the intent. The statistics are clear and concerning – far too few women are engaged in sport and fitness activities and everyone agrees that something should be done.
Compare this campaign to the one which ran around the same time, imploring us to READ LIKE A MAN. This campaign, targeted at teenage boys and young adult men, was motivated by concerns about the plummeting literacy attainment among our boys. The campaign championed the benefits of reading for pleasure, showing boys being taken off on wild adventures beyond the stars, discovering new wonders of the world and losing themselves in diverse fiction and non-fiction more vibrant than any videogame.
It is possible that the Read Like A Man campaign passed you by, because I will confess I just made it up. It never happened. Admittedly a handful of charities like the National Literacy Trust and the Fatherhood Institute run schemes to encourage fathers to read to their sons, but they do so on close to zero budget. Neither the DCMS nor the Department of Education fund any schemes specifically targeted at boys. There is no national Read Like A Man campaign or anything like it.
I bring up the contrast because this morning in the Guardian, Laura McInerney, who doubles as editor of Schools Week, is fretful. She has noticed that proposed new schools’ funding formulas would be weighted so that schools with greater spending needs would get slightly more money. This could throw up some odd consequences. One is that schools in the affluent south of England need to pay their teachers more as they have higher living costs so, perversely perhaps, schools in wealthier areas might get more money. This doesn’t seem to bother McInerney, however. What concerns her is that because boys are significantly underperforming relative to girls at all levels of academic achievement, schools with more boys (particularly single sex boys schools) will get a financial boost.
To be clear, this is not a deliberate affirmative action scheme. It is an inadvertent consequence of a gender-neutral system that prioritises needs. It just so happens that those with the greatest educational needs are more likely to be boys. However McInerney is worried because this might eventually lead to, well, as far as I can tell her only concern is that it just might lead to boys doing a little bit better.
In trying to justify her gut feeling that this simply cannot be right, she comes up with several arguments. One is this:
If boys are doing worse in tests when younger, at least some are later catching up, and when it comes to society at large the continued inequalities across top jobs suggests women’s exam achievements are still apparently not enough.
I’m not going to waste many pixels on this because the counter-arguments are so obvious. Firstly, those currently occupying top jobs were mostly educated in the 1970s and 80s, so their success has little relevance to current educational policies. Secondly, those men in the top jobs are, with very few exceptions, from privileged backgrounds, privately schooled and entirely remote from the experiences of the boys likely to benefit from a needs-based funding system.
Continuing that theme, the second argument she pulls out is that this year more boys than girls were accepted to Oxford. Again, we need to ask ourselves just how relevant this is to anything, bearing in mind the pond from which that particular university fishes its students. But even allowing for that, clicking through to the source it emerges that while last year nationally girls were 35% more likely than boys to attend university, at Oxford only 47% of new admissions were girls, 53% boys. McInerney is arguing against a needs based funding system for around 10 million children because Oxford is (literally) about two hundred kids short of symmetry.
The only other argument McInerney presents is the most bizarre, and it brings us back full circle.
Although it is true that girls outperform boys in tests, there are many other areas where their participation isn’t equal. Take sport. Only about 30% of school-aged girls play sport once a week, compared with 40% of boys – and that number diminishes as they get older. By age 14, it is estimated just 10% of girls are playing enough sport to stay healthy. Is there a premium for low sport participation? No, there is not. “
The relatively low participation of girls in sport and fitness activities is a genuine problem, a real concern. Large amounts of public and quasi-public funding are already dedicated to highlighting and alleviating the problem but I would unreservedly welcome efforts to do more. If someone were to suggest that the schools funding formula be tweaked to allow for greater spending to encourage our daughters to spend more time in the gym, the pool or the sports hall I would cheer wholeheartedly.
Meanwhile the academic underachievement of boys is a genuine problem and a real concern. Pretty much zero public and quasi-public spending is already dedicated to highlighting and alleviating the problem. As the DoE admitted last year “The Department does not fund any initiatives that just focus on addressing boys’ underachievement”.
It is enormously depressing that even a token nod towards fairness is met with resistance and pushback from at least one of Britain’s most influential educationalists. Laura McInerney’s article doesn’t really make much sense. But it does at least show what we are up against.