Boys say studying is not the mark of a real man

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Efforts to tackle boys' underachievement at school are being undermined by a strict playground code that says male pupils are "uncool" if they work hard, according to new research.

A survey of more than 320 boys found they still believe that being good at sport, wearing the right labels and avoiding close friendships are signs of being a "real man" while working hard is "unmasculine".

Boys respect classmates who are dominant, in control and who swear a lot, even though those character traits tended to lead to poor academic results.

Teenagers who fail to conform to the masculine stereotype risk being bullied or labelled as gay by their fellow students, according to the study by London University's Birkbeck College and the Open University.

The survey looked at pupils aged 11 to 14 from 12 London secondary schools, including independent, state, single-sex and mixed schools.

State school boys told researchers that challenging authority was a key to popularity while working hard was "unmasculine".

Independent school pupils value academic success but also believe it is important to appear "manly" to win status among their friends.

Boys from all types of school introduced themselves to researchers in terms of their "hardness" and footballing ability, according to the study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Once many of the boys felt comfortable with the researchers, they admitted their "macho act" often left them feeling isolated and afraid to express themselves.

Stephen Frosh, a professor of psychology at Birkbeck and leader of the project, said schools must help boys to reject masculine stereotypes and adopt more flexible attitudes towards what it means to be a man.

"It's no longer good enough for schools to say, 'Boys will be boys'," he said.

The boys were critical of their fathers, although most teenagers said they had a good relationship with them.

Fathers were seen as emotionally unavailable, bad listeners and only able to offer very basic advice. While this made them fun to be with, especially for boys from single parent families, it prevented most fathers from helping their sons. As a result most of the boys confided only in their mothers, the research found.

Class differences were also apparent when the boys were asked about their plans for the future. Whereas the public school boys aspired to professional careers and felt confident about their future economic success, the state school boys said they wanted to be good fathers, with one in ten hoping to become a professional footballer.