By a weird quirk of circumstances, on A-Level results day I found myself at a girls’ grammar school. The sun was shining, most of the girls were happy to the point of deafeningly loud shrieking, and I had managed to navigate my way from the train station to the school with only once having to ask directions from Essex builders. Success.
However, it was a strange experience – more so than I’d expected, it being only two years since I was in a similar position. All the fresh and over-excited faces eager to go to uni made me feel as old as the third year hills I will soon be lethargically struggling over, and I also spent far more time than I should have done consoling myself with the fact that I too would have got a heap of A*s had it been possible at the time. However, in amongst this self-pitying, I couldn’t help but notice the sheer hordes of photographers and reporters there – something definitely not present on my own results day. This is perhaps unsurprising, with the school in question being a high achieving school within reach of London (and my own school being out in the sticks and a whole lot less high achieving) – but the main thing that attracted the influx of the all-male photographers? The lack of boys.
‘Sexy A-Levels’, the rather hilarious blog that hit Twitter and did the rounds in some of the self-mocking papers at the time, highlights the phenomena. If you were to get your only impression of our age group from the media coverage on results day, you’d be forgiven for concluding that only girls do A-Levels, and all such girls are rather ridiculously good-looking. Endless photos of over-excited girls assault the innocent newspaper reader, and there seems to be a type particularly favoured by photographers and editors; blonde, twins, Oxbridge-bound and jumping (I did meet twins on my Essex foray, but only one is going to Oxford and neither were blonde, which perhaps explains why they didn’t get into the paper).
Every year in media coverage of A-Levels, amongst all the column inches proclaiming the dumbing down of qualifications and pointlessness of it all, you can find tables showing the differences between boys and girls. There are statistics enough to satiate even the hungriest of number-crunchers, with breakdowns for subject, grades, state schools, private schools, single-sex schools and headache-inducing lists of percentages for every school in the whole wide world (or so it seems). But the insistence on comparing the difference between the sexes is curious. The “gender gap” is a topic constantly in vogue, and it was proclaimed to have narrowed this year, with 26.1 per cent of A-Levels sat by boys being graded an A, compared to 27.9 per cent by girls – the smallest gap since the AS overhaul of 2001. This one statistic, plucked from many, was what The Guardian chose to lead their article about results day with. But why?
Girls outperform boys at school right the way through until university, and even beyond this – 60 per cent of 2008’s intake of solicitors were women, a sharp increase from just ten years before that. Attitudes towards female education and job expectations have certainly changed even during our lifetimes – it is now commonly assumed that women will go back to work after having children, for example. But this cultural shift is not reflected in job performance and career trajectories. Only 22 per cent of women solicitors were partners in this study of two years ago and beyond the world of law, less than a quarter of MPs are females – which is a record high apparently – and only 11 per cent of FTSE 100 companies have a woman on their board. And even at our esteemed university things aren’t equal; a Nouse report earlier this year uncovered a pay gap of over £2,718 between male and female professors at the University, as well as a dominance of men in senior academic positions. Statistics vary depending on age and profession, but a pay gap certainly exists between men and women: a study by the Chartered Management Institute in August said that female managers in the UK face a wait of 57 years for their salaries to equal their male colleagues if the current rate continues.
There have been endless pontifications on why there are such differences and inequalities, which go into far more detail and suggest far better solutions than I could ever hope to. But the fact is that there is certainly a problem. And the blonde girl with her 17 A*s certainly has as much right to a top level job as any boy, questionable media coverage aside. It is an odd paradox that there is annual celebration of girls doing well in school, and yet pay gaps and gender discrimination can certainly go, if not unnoticed, certainly much more under the radar – and without any shiny pictures to attract the eye of the casual reader.
There are larger problems to be addressed and discussed when the A-Level circus comes to town every August. Less students are doing languages, more are taking the ‘softer’ options, there aren’t as many university places, kids with a string of top grades are being refused and yet those with lesser marks are getting in. We are lucky in that we have excellent education opportunities in this country – but this can rather depend on a whole load of factors; from address to finance to religion. The focus on the difference between the sexes seems a bit irrelevant, and more should be done to improve opportunities for those who aren’t as lucky as the girls I met.
And the first step to this might just be sending some of those photographers to the boys school across the road next year on A-Levels day.