Why do girls and boys tend to choose such different A-levels? Choosing A-Levels can be a challenge for any student. Advice from teachers, parents and friends is important, of course, but the culture of the school they attend and peer pressure can affect an individual’s choice far more significantly, if less obviously. In some places there is still a clear gender divide – boys do Maths and Science; girls do English and Art. We see this myth perpetuated in the media and sadly – but also inaccurately – there is the perception that Arts subjects are easier and that you have to choose either Arts or Sciences – as if you can only be talented in one area.
At Mayfield girls are encouraged to be aspirational and choose subjects they enjoy, not be confined by stereotypes or other peoples’ choices. Girls know they will be taught well: challenged and encouraged to think for themselves. Good teachers, who are passionate about their subjects, are compelling and their enthusiasm is contagious. In today’s increasingly utilitarian society, results are currency so it is important to achieve the best possible grades, but inspiring a love and understanding of the subject and a desire to continue to learn after school are of more value in shaping an individual in the long term. Yes, Mayfield has an outstanding Maths and Science provision and consistently achieves outstanding results, but we also have outstanding humanities, language, performing and creative arts and sports provision. The important thing is to create an environment where girls feel able to choose the right subject combinations for them, not have to make conventional choices. It is possible to be rigorous and expect high standards, while still being supportive and giving girls this confidence. They need to be encouraged to believe that with motivation and application they can achieve anything they put their mind to, although it might be a challenge and there will inevitably be setbacks to overcome. I believe that teaching them in an all-girls environment enables us to do that more effectively. There are not yet enough women in positions of responsibility in public life or the boardrooms of FTSE companies. However, we are not educating young women to complain about this state of affairs, but rather to do something to change it. Women being confident and successful in areas previously considered to be male bastions such as engineering and industry can only be a good step forward.
Do you think we need to address this balance? Most certainly we do! In other countries the disparity is not so great; I believe that in Germany, for example the number of male and female engineers are fairly equal. In the UK the vast majority of engineers are men, so there is clearly something going awry somewhere in the UK. Obviously there is no intrinsic reason why women can’t do the job as well as men, albeit that they are not the same and bring a different perspectives and skill sets. There are lots of capable girls whose skills and talents are not being directed effectively, who would respond positively to the challenges and rigour of STEM subjects, given half the chance. The workforce could benefit from their contribution; we undoubtedly –and urgently- need more female engineers. Similarly there may be boys who feel they are being pressured into STEM subjects when their talents lie in other areas.
What can we do to encourage girls to choose STEM subjects? Encouraging girls to engage with STEM subjects needs to begin earlier than A Level choices- right back to Primary school. We have a high take up of Maths and Science at A level because we expect all girls to study all three sciences from day one up to at GCSE. Many are not confident about their own abilities at the end of Year 9 but when they do well at GCSE [Last year 90% of girls achieved A*/A in Physics, Chemistry and Biology], they have the confidence and ability to continue at A Level and beyond. Furthermore, wherever possible, we encourage girls to keep their options open and balance their A level choices. Most girls will study at least one science or Maths at A level, and similarly those girls focusing predominantly on Sciences often study an arts subject as well.
Do children need to choose between arts and STEM subjects? I worry that children are expected to ‘specialise’ far too early in their school careers, and indeed that they are encouraged to categorise themselves as either an ‘artist’ or a ‘scientist’ with different skills. I don’t think that is helpful. We need to be encouraging children to look for links between subjects and how skills complement each other. After all, to be a good scientist, you need to be creative and to write accurately and concisely. Any good piece of writing, or art, needs to be crafted and structured with discipline. What we need to ensure is that children are able to think independently and to make mistakes and learn from them, in a variety of subjects. My concern is that while STEM, or indeed STEAM, is crucially important part of education, we exclude emphasis on creative, artistic subjects at our peril. Advances in science need to have a cultural and moral context, so if we deprive our children of these less utilitarian, but vitally important subjects we are compromising their perspective and our future.
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