Girls may perform better at school than boys – but their experience is much less happy

Happiness does not come solely from better marks. Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

The usual discussions about children’s schooling experiences often focus on academic achievement, personal development and school evaluation. Ask a teacher, parent or policy maker what is the most important thing a school should offer and many will say it is education: they want children to develop the knowledge and skills that will help them build a career and grow into successful adults.

Of course, they’re concerned with the more personal elements of school as well. No one wants a child to be bullied or put into unsafe situations. Yet, as the emphasis on qualifications, performance, school ratings and teacher accountability increases, it’s time to consider how the social elements of the schooling environment might be taken for granted, or at least overshadowed, by these educational discourses.

For the past three years, our research group at Cardiff University has been analysing the difference in boys’ and girls’ perceptions of their school experiences. Our study, involving approximately 1,500 pupils at 29 different primary and secondary schools across Wales has uncovered a wealth of information – not least that girls are simply less happy at school than boys.

How can this be? Traditionally, girls achieve better grades than boys at school, but why aren’t they as happy as their male counterparts?

Children learn far more than just traditional education in schools. Shutterstock/racorn

We have surveyed pupils on a number of items including the learning environment of their school and the characteristics of these institutions as sites of socialisation, personal accomplishment and subjective well-being. Overall, we have uncovered several important differences in how participants feel towards their schooling, based on their gender.

Female pupils were more positive about the school as an institution than the boys, for example. They felt the school staff had high expectations of them, rewarded good marks and progress, and cared about their academic achievement. However, their responses about how they feel at school were quite different.

Nearly 25% of female pupils said they felt worried at school, compared to just 16.5% of the boys; approximately 24% of girls felt like they didn’t “belong” at school, compared to only 8.8% of boys. Additionally, nearly 20% of girls disagreed that their school was a place where “my teachers know me well” compared to 12% of the boys participating. Unfortunately, our participants’ responses don’t improve as they progress in school. These questions were repeated in additional, annual sweeps and the negative responses were not only sustained, but in some cases, increased.

Gender and schooling

Previous studies from the American Psychological Association and UK organisation UCAS have found that, overall, girls perform better in most (or all) school subjects than boys, and that this trend has manifested in multiple countries since the early 20th century. The media often promote these findings through a type of moral panic, with advocate groups wringing their hands as they attempt to shape the discourse of a perceived threat to the development and future success of male pupils.

The “gender gap” in education is often attributed to a lack of male teachers. However, study after study has suggested that a teacher’s gender has no measurable impact on pupils’ academic achievement. Rather, girls seem to do better because they have positive perceptions of education, read more, study more (an American study, but our research corroborates this claim), and behave better than boys.

While boys’ lower academic achievement in school is concerning, it is time to acknowledge that though girls may be performing better at school than boys, these experiences can be fraught with heightened feelings of doubt, alienation and anxiety.

Schools as social spaces

Schools are much more than places to learn, they are also sophisticated sites of social activity. The same social attitudes, practices and discourses at play outside the school exist within the crucible of these micro-social environments. It is important to remember that pupils don’t shed the complexities of adolescent life when entering the halls of the school. If anything, they are intensified for some.

For the female pupils involved in our study, the realities of being a young woman in a patriarchally organised society remain explicitly and implicitly embedded in the social practices of schooling. For example, body image and social media activity are hot-topics linked to pressures that potentially increase girls’ emotional problems. Reactions to these issues often focus on their impact on girls’ lives without acknowledging how perceptions of women’s bodies in society are constructed and reproduced, and schools serve as an apparatus in this process.

Though official attempts are being made to close the “gender gap”, greater effort must be made to understand and improve pupils’ (especially girls’) social experience and well-being at school.

Engaging rather than retreating from concepts like gender fluidity in the daily processes of school and curricular materials can provide authentic learning opportunities to grapple with concepts of identity and gender.

Organisations like the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Gender and Education Association are already on the front lines, producing guidance for teachers to implement critical, transformative practices in the classroom. In addition to practical engagements with gender and identity – elements that affect the life of each pupil at school – the philosophical currents embedded in these new and emerging teaching practices have the potential to inform and invigorate a more inclusive educational ethos for schools, and a supportive and engaging environment for pupils.