Girls and Education 3-16  continuing concerns, new agendas Gender and Education
~ ESRC Seminar Series
Home > Background to the series



Continuing Concerns, New Agendas

Background to the Series

Issues relating to girls’ schooling and femininities have been sidelined in recent education agendas. Yet there are questions and concerns relating to schoolgirls’ lives and experiences that deserve immediate attention. This seminar series aims to focus on continuing gender imbalances in relation to the schooling system, considering ongoing problems and exploring new agendas.

Over the last decade, there has been considerable interest in young masculinities and in how boys and young men respond to, and negotiate, schooling. Indeed, studies of boys’ school experiences have dominated recent gender and education research; there has been what Weaver-Hightower (2003) refers to as a ‘boy turn’ in the field. In Britain this has been driven and fuelled by various concerns about young males, but most notably by data suggesting that more boys than girls fail to achieve A*-C benchmark grades in GCSE examinations taken in England and Wales, and by similar patterns in Scottish examination results.

Despite this focus on boys, girls’ school experiences remain problematic in a number of ways. For example, not all girls are academically successful; many girls face exclusion in schools; career aspirations are still highly gendered; rates of smoking and drinking alcohol are high amongst some groups of girls. This series aims to explore these issues and put girls and young women back on the public agenda. It will do this by bringing together individuals from a variety of disciplines who are studying, and/or working with, girls, to exchange ideas and develop agendas for future research.

The series will explore three spheres of schoolgirls’ lives: academic attainment; experiences inside school; and the relationship between girls out-of-school experiences and school life. Importantly, the series will explore the complex identities that girls’ construct across a broad age range. Two key ideas underpin our approach to the series. First, girls are heterogeneous; their experiences as gendered beings are cross-cut by, amongst other things, ‘race’, ethnic and social class identities. By bringing together participants who study different aspects of girls’ identities, we will be able to explore the complex ways in which they interrelate. Second, we will bring together researchers working across the entire 3-16 age range. Much of the research to date about girls and education has been phase-related; researchers have tended to study the early years, or primary age, or secondary age children. This way of working perpetuates divisions that are structural to the schooling system, but which may not reflect the continuities of girls’ experiences. To overcome this, the series will bring together studies of teenage girls with those of younger children, so that, for example, constraints on the construction of identity in the early years are considered alongside those operating for older girls. Furthermore, we will consider both the within- and out-of-school experiences of girls. Overall, we will be in a position to construct a more holistic picture of girls’ lives than has been possible to date.


Seminars will be organised thematically, with contributions from those studying different age groups.

Six seminars will be held during the two-year period, two on each main theme:

Theme 1: Girls and academic achievement

  • Girls’ relationships to academic success
  • Excluded and low-attaining girls

Theme 2: Girls’ experiences in the schooling system

  • Girls and the school curriculum
  • Girls experiences of school life

Theme 3: Relationships between girls’ out-of-school experiences and school life

  • Girls and their social worlds
  • Marginal femininities

1. Girls and academic achievement

The dominance of the standards discourse in education over the last decade has meant that success in examinations has largely been treated as an unqualified good. Consequently, the focus has been on raising attainment levels, with an emphasis on boys and narrowing the ‘gender achievement gap’ (Arnot et al. 1998). Although some writers (e.g. Sewell 1997; Francis 2000) have suggested that attainment can be socially problematic for boys, this has not been seen as an issue for girls, despite evidence that academic achievement, particularly in masculine-labelled subjects, can put girls under further pressure to perform and lead to marginalisation in peer groups (Renold 2001; Mendick 2003; Jackson 2004). This situation is exacerbated by persistent discourses among primary school teachers which label boys as ‘naturally able’ and girls as ‘hardworking’, irrespective of achievement (Skelton and Francis 2003).

Furthermore, not all schoolgirls are academically ‘successful’. While more girls than boys achieve 5 A*-C grades in GCSE examinations, there are still many girls who do not attain this level (41% in 2004). Moreover, between 1995 and 1999 over 10,000 secondary school aged girls were permanently excluded from schools in England (Osler and Vincent, 2003). Osler and Vincent argue that this represents the tip of the iceberg, because many of the ways in which girls are excluded in schools, such as informal and self-exclusion, remain hidden. They conclude that ‘The efforts of policy-makers to address the needs of boys, examining apparent ‘underachievement’ and disaffection, have led to a neglect of girls’ social and educational needs’ (169). The seminar series will identify and highlight the social and educational experiences of girls who are not defined as academically successful, and consider the relationship between these and the construction of their identities.

2. Girls’ experiences in the schooling system

The recent focus on achievement has obscured some key issues in relation to girls’ schooling which have been pushed off the education agenda (Raphael Reed 1999). While girls’ overall attainment has improved, many find the experience of schooling problematic, with school spaces and teacher attention dominated by boys and their concerns (Nespor 2000; Epstein et al. 2001; Skelton 2001; Woodward 2003; Browne 2004). Classroom and playground interactions have important implications for girls’ learning experiences, schooling lives and post-school prospects, as well as for how they understand their own identities. Warrington and Younger’s (2000) research suggests that: girls still feel alienated from traditionally ‘male’ subjects; career aspirations remain highly gendered; many boys dominant and ‘laddish’ behaviours can have negative effects on girls’ learning; and some teachers have lower expectations of girls. These issues have effects that last well beyond the period of compulsory schooling. For example, even girls who are successful in masculine-labelled curriculum areas such as mathematics tend to drop them as soon as they are permitted to, thus restricting their future possibilities and aspirations (Paechter forthcoming, 2005a). Take-up of vocational courses at ages 14 and 16 is highly gendered and leads to differential earnings between men and women (Equal Opportunities Commission 2002). Evidence (Boaler 1997a;b) suggests that differential subject take-up by girls is related to their experiences of particular pedagogies and ways that learning is organised.

3. Relationships between girls’ out-of-school experiences and school life

Girls’ school lives do not take place in a vacuum; what takes place in school is intimately related to structures and relations outside it (Nespor 1994). We will focus on aspects of girls’ lives that have received least attention in recent years. For example, girls in the early teenage years (ages 11-14) have been largely ignored by researchers in gender and education, although alcohol, tobacco and drug use, as well as first sex, are likely to begin for many girls during this period (Brook, 2002). World Health Organisation data suggest, for example, that 8.1% of 11 year-old girls in England drink alcohol weekly; this rises to 24.8% at age 13 and 48.6% at 15 (Currie et al, 2004). How girls’ social worlds incorporate and resist drug and alcohol use would thus be an important focus. Marginal femininities, such as those constructed by tomboys and sporty girls (Cockburn and Clarke 2002; Paechter forthcoming, 2005b, Renold 2005), would also be an important focus, again crossing the boundaries between school and out-of-school worlds.


The series will have two, one-day seminars at each of the three host institutions, Goldsmiths College London, Cardiff University and Lancaster University. All three institutions are easily accessible by road, rail and air, and the geographical spread means that travel time for participants who want to attend the whole series will be relatively balanced regardless of the location of their workplace. Participation would be limited to 24 people per seminar, including speakers. This size of group is appropriate to our aims of facilitating discussion of existing research projects and enabling participants to set up future partnerships. In order to encourage participants to attend most or all of the seminars, invited speakers and participants will be drawn from the UK, and we will aim for a wide geographical spread, as well as a mix of academics, policy makers and practitioners.

Expected outputs and dissemination plans

For the academic community, the key output from the seminar series will be an edited book. We will engage with practitioners and policy-makers through the educational press and other media, for example, Times Educational Supplement and Women’s Hour, parenting magazines and publications aimed at girls themselves. We will also disseminate findings through the Gender and Education Association newsletter and website. Seminar papers will be available via a dedicated website. As one aim of the series is to identify issues for future research, we expect that the discussions and networking facilitated through this series will lead to bids for research funding.

See references

Cardiff University



Lancaster University



| Overview and Aims | Background to the series | The series organisers |
| Seminars | Travel and Accommodation |