Education: A bad way to educate boys

For all their bravado, boys are vulnerable types who crave approval - and they may not be getting it in our school culture. Does this explain why girls so often do better?
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Peter is 11, in his first year at secondary school. He is sitting on the edge of his chair, eyes darting around the room, fidgeting, tie cut in half and askew, laces undone, giving the clear impression of a defiant boy who would rather be outside playing football. Brash and loud, he doesn't seem to lack confidence: Peter is able to bring a lesson to a halt with his antics. But look closer and you see a vulnerable child, rather lost, who is struggling.

Peter is the type of boy that education experts are desperately, albeit belatedly, trying to understand: the under-achiever, the type whose poor performance is so widespread that girls outdo boys in every GCSE subject except physics. Boys pull their socks up at A- and degree-level, although more girls than boys manage two or more A-levels and more women than men achieve a First degree.

Jim Graham, an avuncular retired headteacher and associate fellow at Keele University, is completing a six-weekly questionnaire with Peter at Priestlands school in Lymington, Hampshire, to find out what is bothering him. It is a familiar story. Lesson after lesson is described as boring - "The teacher talks too much, sometimes for the whole lesson." A picture of long-running confrontation emerges - "The teacher doesn't like me because she keeps blaming things on me." He feels that there is insufficient support to prevent bullying - "He pushed me in the face and the school didn't do nothing about it. Just suspended him off lessons. They should have suspended him off school, because he keeps coming up to me."

In short, Paul is one of the "disappointed", a group that comprises 25 per cent of the secondary school population, according to Michael Barber, professor of education at London's Institute of Education. If nothing is done, Peter could become one of the additional 10 per cent who are "disaffected" - so fed up that they play truant and continually disrupt lessons. Or he could turn into one of the 5 per cent who make up the "disappeared", those who simply drop out or are thrown out of the system, never or rarely to be seen again. In short, more than 40 per cent of pupils are seriously unhappy with school, and boys make up the biggest chunk of this group.

It is a worrying figure, but researchers are discovering solutions. Almost inadvertently, Jim Graham seems to have identified perhaps the most significant factor: the overwhelming need of boys, in particular, for emotional support and external approval. He finds that each time he visits a school and begins a regular set of sessions questioning "failing" pupils about their likes and dislikes, they suddenly start performing rather well. "Experience is leading me to conclude that the young male has a fragile ego," he says. "Apparently it is more fragile than in the young female. I find that if you give boys and girls individual attention, they all benefit; but it seems to make a bigger difference to the boys."

Lack of encouragement, he believes, explains why boys often go into educational decline in their early teens. "I talked to pupils at one school who arrived at the age of 11, feeling great that they could make a fresh start and put the past behind them," he says. "The school fell over itself to welcome them in year 7. Then the school sat back and decided they were all right. So in year 8 they found the work was becoming harder, but they were getting less encouragement. That attitude really turned off the boys in particular."

At another school surveyed by Keele University, there was, unusually, little difference in the achievement of boys and girls in years 7, 8 and 9. But in year 10 (age 14-15) boys suddenly started to deteriorate, and by year 11 they were way behind the girls, a situation reflected in GCSE results.

"We discovered that for years 7, 8 and 9, the school organised tutorials so that the same teacher looked after them for three years," Mr Graham says. "The system came to an end in year 10 and teaching became more curriculum- based. The girls seemed to cope satisfactorily, but the boys clearly didn't."

Karen Dadds, Paul's year-7 head at Priestlands, agrees with Mr Graham's observations and has introduced a programme of one-to-one tutorials for all pupils. "If boys get into trouble they can get very down; so traumatised," she says. "Some boys' school careers can be ruined by little things like truanting for a day. You have to make sure that they are not lost for good, that they understand that they are allowed to make a mistake."

It is not clear why boys are so vulnerable. Perhaps they mature more slowly than girls, or conditioning makes it harder for them to access their emotions in order to cope on their own, without a formal mentor system or professional support.

"Girls have the same likes and dislikes as boys about teachers and subjects," says Alan Pickering, a member of the Keele research group, "but they seem able to shrug off difficulties and put them to the back of their minds."

Whatever the reason, given that external approval seems so important to boys, the current school environment is not structured to meet their needs. "Research shows that the ratio of negative to positive comment about boys is four to one," says Alan Evans, research consultant to the School of Education at the University of Wales. "It should be reversed."

According to Mr Pickering, "boys tend to get criticised publicly, reprimanded across the classroom in an up-front confrontation, whereas girls are told off more quietly. Boys complain about being lumped together as boys and losing their sense of identity."

Martin Spafford, a humanities teacher at a mixed comprehensive in east London, teaches an all-male class. He supports the anti-sexist programmes of the Eighties, but says they have had an unfortunate side-effect: "Boys feel continually attacked for who they are. We have created a sense in school that masculinity is something bad. Boys feel blamed for history, and a school culture has grown up which is suspicious and frightened of boys. We have not succeeded in doing for boys what we have done for girls - we have not found a way of building up things for them to love about themselves."

More male teachers would help - schools (particularly primaries and juniors) are staffed largely by women. Many boys think that if a particular job is not being done by men, it is low-status, and can't be worth bothering about.

The failure of schools (and society in general) to offer a successful and proud modern male culture to boys has left a vacuum, a gap in their sources of approval. It is being filled by other means less conducive to education. Mr Spafford highlights the pull of peer groups. "A lot of adolescent boys lack the courage to be individuals. They feel a desperate need to follow the group. One of our all-male classes is proving very difficult. They are united; there is a very strong ethos, and it is not about academic study, but laughing and joking. If you study hard, you are perceived as a 'bod' and excluded. The only way to be included is to stop being a 'bod'."

The reasons why many boys gravitate to this anti-academic ethos are partly historic. Many still believe that they will land jobs without academic qualifications. Also, Mr Spafford says, street culture, to which they are more exposed than girls, teaches them that it is possible to live on your wits.

But the biggest reason for boys being anti-study lies once again with their need for approbation. Boys are desperate to avoid failure, yet many are failing in the key skill needed for school, the skill that gives them access to the whole curriculum: literacy. If you can't read and write, you can do almost nothing well at school. So, if you don't want to appear to fail, you have to give up trying and make a great noise about rejecting education. "Boys need an immediate sense of achievement, and if they don't get it, they will switch off," Mr Spafford says.

The problem starts early on; perhaps with parenting, perhaps with genetics. Research in Surrey among 3,200 five-year-olds indicated that girls are already forging ahead in literacy at that age. The reasons are complex. Boys seem to develop the skills for literacy later than girls: as toddlers, typically, they are more interested in action.

Whatever the reason, starting formal education ever earlier (four is the now the average age, and getting younger as schools start their own nurseries) is bad news for boys, because they are not ready for worksheets and desk-learning. It simply doesn't suit their inclinations and abilities, according to Wendy Scott, national chair of the British Association for Early Childhood Education. Some boys never catch up. And the inadequacies of teaching literacy do not help. "Too often they are offered romantic stuff, a poor man's Mills & Boons," says Alan Evans. Martin Spafford agrees: "There is a huge absence of creative writing and music that speaks of boys' lives."

Solutions are emerging. Mr Evans argues that parents must read more at bedtime with their boys (up to the age of 11 or 12, like girls, and not stop at seven or eight); that book-buying at school should be better geared to boys' interests; that male pop stars should be seen reading books; and that sports magazines should be accepted in the classroom.

Promoting literacy is certainly important to promoting male self-esteem at school and an interest in academic life, providing a bulwark against the pull of street culture. Closely targeted projects with good follow- up by teachers, combined with after-hours homework sessions in school, also help boys to focus better.

But Mr Spafford hits the fundamental point that comes up again and again for researchers: "Schools needs to hold a belief that boys are expected to do well. It isn't easy for an adult to hold that belief when boys are swearing at them in order to survive within their peer group. But that is what boys need"

Ten steps to redress the balance

Begin formal education later, perhaps at six, as in some European countries.

Ensure that a parent, preferably the father, reads with the boy at night until the age of 11 or 12.

Buy reading material with narratives that speak directly to a boy's experience. This may mean boys' magazines.

Reverse the current 4:1 ratio of negative to positive comment about boys by teachers.

Treat each boy as an individual, not as part of a group.

Provide boys with mentors, preferably male.

Encourage more men to become teachers, especially at primary and junior level.

Focus on positive male role models. Also, be careful while being positive about women not to be negative about men.

Set regular targets and check progress frequently, encouraging boys to dwell on their emotions.

Create after-school homework centres. Tell boys how long homework should take.