Education Policy and Gender

How have education policies addressed gender differences in society and school?

If we take a longer term historical perspective, education policies have tended to reflect the dominant gender norms within society, and for the most part have served to disadvantage girls in relation to boys.

It wasn’t until Feminism and the 1975 sex discrimination act that research and policy started to address what was then the underachievement of girls.

And since the 1988 Education and the National Curriculum there has been more concern with boys underachievement than girls.

Historical education policies are also very traditional in terms how they deal with gender: they focus exclusively on differences between males and females. There is a serious lack of research on the experiences of LGBTQ pupils in schools and no explicit policy initiatives to improve the experience of LGBTQ pupils.

This post focuses on the history of education policies designed to address gender differences in education from the early 19th century to the 1988 Education Act.

Education and Gender in the 19th and early 20th Centuries

In the 19th Century there was a distinct division between male and female gender roles in society, with men working and women being consigned largely to domestic roles. Women also had no political power as they were not allowed to vote.

In the middle classes women were encouraged to marry at which point they effectively became their husband’s rather than their father’s property, and women were not allowed to divorce.

Education policies for the middle classes reflected these gender power differences. Public and grammar schools were for boys only where boys learned the skills required for politics and/ or work.

Middle class girls were educated at home by governesses, and their education largely consisted of learning the skills to be a lady within society.

The Education Act 1870 made state education free to all pupils irrespective of gender, but the experience of education was gendered, different for males and females, for many years to come.

Even women getting the right to vote in 1918 didn’t do much to change the heavily gendered experience of education

The Tripartite System and Comprehensives

The 1944 Education Act introduced single sex grammar schools, and this introduced a gender divide which benefitted boys because there were more boys grammar schools. Boys thus needed lower 11 plus scores than girls to get into a grammar school.

Some secondary moderns were single sex, but not all, these were more likely to mixed.

The 1965 education act saw the abolition of single sex grammar and secondary modern schools and all pupils were educated in mixed sex comprehensive schools.

However the experience of education still remained very gendered – with girls and boys having different experiences – subjects were often determined by gender stereotypes with girls being pushed into needlework and boys into metalwork, for example!

Education policies designed to address differences in achievement by gender

1970s -80s Feminist inspired research into gender inequalities in schools

From the mid 1970s Feminists started to take an interest in the differential experiences of girls and boys in education, why girls were so much less likely to do hard science subjects and maths, and the underachievement of girls.

Whyte (1975) looked at gender stereotypes in the primary curriculum, finding that the representation of men and women tended to reinforce traditional gender roles.

Sharpe (1976) looked at gender sterotypes in secondary schools and how they encouraged girls to act in feminine ways and develop lower career aspirations.

Spender (1982) researched the marginal position of girls in classrooms, suggesting this reflected their marginal roles in society.

Curriculum Changes in the 1980s

The 1980s saw a few policy initiatives to improve girls underachievement and their low numbers in science subjects.

Girls Into Science (GIST) ran from 1979 to 1983 which investigated the reasons why so few girls were going into science and technology subjects and encouraged teachers to develop strategies to get more girls doing these subjects.

Genderwatch was an initiative which encouraged teachers to monitor gender differences in schools and develop anti discriminatory practices.

The problem with these policies were that while they may have worked for some middle class girls, they were very individualistic, offered very little in the way of real guidance and also provoked a male backlash.

The backlash was partly due to the myth of girls underachievement – despite their low take up of science and maths girls did better in English and Modern Languages at O-level and got better overall O-level Grades at A-C.

Gender and the 1988 Education Act

The 1988 Education Act was not concerned with any kind of equality of educational opportunity, just pure competition.

The publication of GCSE results showed gender differences in achievement more clearly than ever, and from the late 1980s it was clear that girls were outperforming boys in most subjects.

Since the late 1980s both boys and girls have improved in education, with girls generally improving faster than boys, hence the gender policy focus in the 1990s switched to helping boys improve.


This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of education topic.

Sources/ Find out More

This is a great historical post on boys, girls and science subjects in the 1970s and 1980s.

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