The relationship between gender and educational achievement/attainment is a complex and controversial one, especially at the vital early level of primary education (Richards, 1998). This analysis will consider the definition of gender, how it has changed over time with specific concentration on educational assumptions, the current policy developments which are underway that are attempting to alleviate concerns and an overall view of how gender actually does effect educational achievement. Some questions that will be considered are whether there are indeed innate differences in raw potential between the genders, whether differences are culturally/socially constructed and whether (and if) differences should be alleviated.First, the importance of primary education must be stressed. As Richards (1997) suggests, "the foundations in learning, thinking and feeling which it provides are essential for what comes later not only in schooling but also in life". This undeniable argument will underpin much of the discussion of gender. Second, what is gender The Oxford English Dictionary defines gender as "sexual identity, especially in relation to society or culture" and also "the condition of being female or male" (Oxford, 2007). The difference between a person's "sex" and their "gender" is an important one. Whether one is born male or female in a physical sense relates to "sex", whereas "gender" is a much wider - it is a construct of society in which especially when young, people are socialized into various norms for what it means to be 'male' or 'female', a 'boy' or a 'girl'.
The distinction between gender and sex is vital, because while the vast majority of people naturally fall into the various biological imperatives of the sex that they are born into (the trans-gendered apart), gender roles are constructed by society and are more fluid/changeable (Sleeter, 2006). The traditional view of gender within British primary education fell into the constructs which were regarded as received truths so obvious that they need hardly be stated. Thus boys were regarded as 'good' at subjects such as Maths/Science, were expected to be the loudest socially, were more likely to get into fights and would be more likely to push themselves forward in class (Archer, 2003). Girls would be better at subjects such as English and languages. They were more likely to work cooperatively and in teams. They were less likely to get into fights (Archer, 2003).
Before rejecting these stereotypes out of hand, they should be considered against actual evidence. Male human beings do tend to be more aggressive than females and are more likely to engage in violence at every age, including when primary children (Diamond, 2005). Males also tend to perform better on Maths/Science standardized tests than females (Baron-Cohen, 2003). Conversely, females have long been observed as being more cooperative and less prone to aggression than males within a variety of cultural contexts (Diamond, 2005). They also tend to score better on verbal tests than males (Baron-Cohen, 2003).
As Baron-Cohen suggests, "the female brain is predominantly wired for empathy . . . the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems" (2003). This is of course a highly controversial point of view, but one that seems to be based upon the overwhelming weight of empirical evidence. The words hard-wired are perhaps most important here. If the sex differences are indeed "hard-wired", leading to the various gender differences in both treatment within primary education and attainment/achievement, then little can be done to change them. But if, to stretch the computer metaphor, the differences between male and female are a form of software that can be adapted or even outright changed, then gender differences in educational outcomes may be more malleable.
As human beings are mammals, and as all mammals exhibit clear differences in