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shutterstock_76674955Kick­ing a rugby ball or run­ning around a net­ball court on a wintry Sat­urday morn­ing is all part of a Kiwi edu­ca­tion. Sport has obvi­ous phys­ic­al bene­fits and also builds lead­er­ship skills such as con­fid­ence and resi­li­ence. For the Lydia Kos and Steven Adams of the world, this can be a spring­board to a sat­is­fy­ing work­ing life, allow­ing them to play a game they love while at the same time reap­ing the fin­an­cial rewards that go with pro­fes­sion­al sport. As New Zeal­anders, our pas­sion for com­pet­it­ive sport is part of our DNA, and the sport­ing elite, rightly or wrongly, are held up as role mod­els and ‘her­oes’.

In those coun­tries where edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tun­it­ies are lim­ited, there are aca­dem­ic hurdles to jump if stu­dents are to pro­gress (or not) through the edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Not so in New Zea­l­and, where the gov­ern­ment has set the tar­get that 85 per­cent of 18-year-olds will have achieved NCEA Level 2 or an equi­val­ent qual­i­fic­a­tion in 2017. NCEA, with its flex­ible mod­u­lar approach, enables schools to assemble pro­grammes to suit a range of learners. This stand­ards-based qual­i­fic­a­tion was not inten­ded for stu­dents to meas­ure their per­form­ance against each oth­er. Rather, Achieved grades or bet­ter are alloc­ated in accord­ance with how well stu­dents meet estab­lished bench­marks and, yes, it is pos­sible for a pass rate of 85 per­cent, or even 100 per­cent if all stu­dents reach the standard.

Run­ning counter to the NCEA philo­sophy is the com­pet­it­ive New Zea­l­and Schol­ar­ship exam­in­a­tion. Intro­duced in 2004, this met a need for a chal­len­ging aca­dem­ic exam­in­a­tion. It is, in effect, a com­pet­i­tion with gen­er­ous mon­et­ary prizes awarded.

Look­ing at the 2013 Schol­ar­ship exam­in­a­tion res­ults released in Feb­ru­ary, I am struck by the fact that, although at all levels of NCEA it is girls who have the edge, it is boys over­all who are gar­ner­ing the most out­stand­ing Schol­ar­ship res­ults. An ana­lys­is of the Premi­er Awards is telling. These are the most pres­ti­gi­ous of all the Schol­ar­ship awards and carry a mon­et­ary value of $10,000 for three years. Stat­ist­ics show that although slightly more girls register for the Schol­ar­ship exam­in­a­tions, over a five-year stretch, from 2008 to 2012, 38 (81 per­cent) males and only nine (19 per­cent) females gained a Premi­er Award. What is hap­pen­ing at the seni­or levels for girls? Why aren’t they rising to this par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge? Is it that by Year 13 our young men have developed a super­i­or com­pet­it­ive edge over their female coun­ter­parts? Does this dis­par­ity of per­form­ance fore­shad­ow future imbal­ances such as the gender pay gap and the dis­ap­point­ingly low rep­res­ent­a­tion of female dir­ect­ors — less than 10 per­cent — on New Zea­l­and boards?

Of late I have been dip­ping into Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and many of her ideas have res­on­ated with me. The cur­rent chief oper­at­ing officer of Face­book, Sand­berg writes of how women unin­ten­tion­ally hold them­selves back in their careers. She iden­ti­fies a ‘lead­er­ship ambi­tion gap’, the unwill­ing­ness for women to step up to the next level des­pite hav­ing the requis­ite skills and ability.

Is this what the dis­ap­point­ing Premi­er Award stat­ist­ics reflect? Do our girls lack the com­pet­it­ive instinct found in their male coun­ter­parts? Should we ask our girls to kick the ball harder, run faster and jump high­er? If not, will our girls con­tin­ue to take the back seat to males as they move into future careers. I believe we need to join with Sheryl Sand­berg and urge our girls to aim high, lean in and take their right­ful place at the table.

Carol Craymer

Carol has an MA in English from the University of Canterbury and has been principal of Queen Margaret college since 2004. Prior to moving to Wellington, she was assistant principal at Orewa college and deputy principal at Takapuna Grammar. However, Carol is not all about 'dotting the is' and crossing the t's'. She has also worked for Radio New Zealand as an announcer, acted in England in a theatre troupe touring schools and raised two daughters.

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