Girl trouble: the hidden problem

Concern about boys' underachievement at school means that girls' needs are often overlooked.
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Bad boys have been hogging all the attention for too long. For the past six or seven years, boys' underachievement, boys' disaffection and boys' exclusion from school, have been constantly – not to say, obsessively – pored over by government ministers, Ofsted inspectors and the media. Girls, meanwhile, have been sitting pretty, praised to the skies for their exam results, which have overtaken boys' at GCSE and A-level.

But now, we are told, all is not well with the girls. Their academic averages conceal a significant pool of underachievement: in 2000, 14 per cent of 16-year-old girls had no qualifications. Girls are said to be suffering from bullying; they are engaging in self-destructive behaviour such as cutting themselves; and they are excluded from school officially and unofficially. Teachers' focus on boys has made matters worse, in that it has led to girls' needs – which do not present schools with the same management problems as boys' – being substantially overlooked.

In November last year, Her Majesty's Inspector David Moore warned a Welsh Assembly conference on truancy that the behaviour of difficult girls is at present being "masked" by the boys. "When our targets and strategies are successful in tackling disaffection in boys, we will start to see the disaffected girls," he says.

Last month, bang on cue, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the National Children's Bureau, Not a Problem? Girls and School Exclusion, highlighted the neglect of girls' problems at secondary level, and said that schools, local authorities and government departments should be doing much more to help them. The number of girls dropping out of school has been seriously underestimated, the report said; although girls officially account for 17 per cent of expulsions, the evidence is that they are increasingly likely to exclude themselves or to skip lessons.

Girls are a further cause for concern in a recent survey of 10- to 15-year-olds by the Schools Health Education Unit, which suggests that a high proportion of teenage girls are missing meals and starving themselves out of concern for their appearance. Twenty-seven per cent of girls (compared with 18 per cent of boys) had smoked at least one cigarette in the previous week, and at least 17 per cent of the older girls had drunk one or more measures of spirits.

To what extent girls' behaviour is actually getting worse is hard to determine, given the relative invisibility of many of their difficulties. The situation in schools, in some respects, has not changed very much, says Carrie Paechter, a senior lecturer in education at Goldsmith's College, London.

"We have known for years that boys get more attention in the classroom, and that the curriculum (though, arguably, not assessment) is more geared to boys' needs. The reason for this is that if you have disaffected boys in your classroom, they are very difficult to handle. If boys don't like what's going on, they are loud about it. If girls don't like it, they'll opt out quietly, and read a magazine under the desk.

"Bored and disaffected girls are not learning as much as they could be, but they're probably learning something," she says. "But disaffected boys will not only not learn anything themselves, but – even if it is only two of them – they will stop everyone else too."

What has changed, Carrie Paechter believes, is that the national focus on boys' underachievement has given "ideological" backing to what has always been a teacher's "survival strategy". "When I was first teaching, we knew we were pandering to the boys, but we felt bad about it. Now there is a whole literature which suggests this is fine, and material to help you do it – so some teachers have stopped working against it."

Schools may be insufficiently aware of what is going on with their girls. Researching the Joseph Rowntree report, Cathy Street, its co-author, says the initial response from many schools was that girls were simply not a problem.

Compared with boys, whose rowdy behaviour in class requires instant management and whose unwillingness to learn may be tied in with the macho, "anti-swot" culture, girls tend to be more compliant and their problems do not generally erupt in the classroom. But the quiet girls at the back may be suffering from low self-esteem, and feelings of failure. They may be going through disturbances at home, or coping with caring responsibilities for younger siblings; they may have friendship problems at school, leading to name-calling, being ostracised, or being sent vicious e-mails.

Unlike the in-your-face fighting and scrapping of boys, this type of psychological girl bullying (brilliantly described by Margaret Atwood in her novel, Cat's Eye) can often go undetected by schools, not least because girls are reluctant to talk about it to teachers. But it can be serious enough to keep girls off school for days at a time, and is a management issue that schools urgently need to address, says Ms Street. Teachers are not trained, and do not have time, to deal with all girls' emotional problems, she acknowledges, but they do need to be able to detect when there are problems, and to know where to refer girls for further help. A school counsellor can also be useful here.

Most girls, according to the Rowntree study, react to these kinds of problems by withdrawing, becoming anxious, and switching off from their school work, in ways that do not draw too much attention to themselves. Young women are twice as likely as their male counterparts to suffer depressive disorders.

But a vociferous minority of girls are showing their disaffection in the same way as the boys – by being loud and aggressive about it. "A minority of girls in our study said this was the only way to get attention," says Ms Street.

Professor Ken Reid, the deputy principal of the Swansea Institute of Higher Education and a specialist in truancy, says that in south Wales, "there does appear to be a yobbish culture, which is not confined to boys, and I increasingly come across girls who are as abusive, openly rude and hostile to authority as some boys."

Many of the young people from deprived backgrounds with whom Professor Reid works feel "a deep sense of frustration" about their lives, he says, as well as suffering "significant neglect" at home. It is not unusual for a teenage girl never to have travelled more than 40 miles from her home, and a new project in the Mountain Ash area is attempting to boost young people's attitudes to learning by giving them richer and more exciting out-of-school experiences.

According to the Rowntree report, most of the special provision available for young people in difficulties – such as pupil referral units, or schemes run by voluntary organisations – caters more for boys than for girls. But what girls often want, says Cathy Street, is just a place to talk – away from the boys (see box right).

There are other ways, too, for schools to give girls more concentrated attention. Matthew Moss High School, in Rochdale, for example, has for years operated a "Boys are Bright" programme to boost boys' underachievement, but alongside, also runs a "Women into Management" scheme with Woolworths, giving girls experience in a boardroom to encourage them to express their opinions and to aim high. The school also circulates a confidential questionnaire to pupils, read and analysed by Durham University, which gives staff valuable insights into how pupils are really feeling. "It helps us pick up on girls who are beginning to opt out," says Geraldine Norman, the deputy head. "Sometimes students appear to be very capable and getting on with school life, but you find out that actually they are not happy."

'The boys get more attention because they are noisy'

ASK ANY teenage girl for her views on the boys at school, and she will undoubtedly have a lot to say ­ probably good and bad. But the girls at Kingsland School, a large, ethnically-mixed comprehensive in Hackney, East London, have more to contend with than most, in that they are outnumbered two to one by the boys.

"Some of the boys are quite nice, but some of them are tragic," confides a 13-year-old Kingsland girl. "Girls worry about their looks, and boys take the mickey out of them ­ especially me, because I'm fat. That feels horrible, but I've got used to it."

"The boys are too big," says an 11-year-old, in her second term at the school.

"They're too rude," adds another. "When the teacher tells them something, they tell the teacher to shut up, and then they get detention."

"In my class, I do talk to the boys," says her friend. "But some of them are loud, and sometimes they distract me from my work. They get more attention, because when they are noisy, the teachers have to go to them."

Three years ago, it was decided that the girls needed some respite from the boisterous and macho environment of the school. Already based in the school was the A-Space, a charity-funded organisation offering support services to families and children in the area. Since 1998 the A-Space has run lunchtime drop-ins for 11- to 14-year-old Kingsland girls.

The idea is to give them a space of their own ­ a former storage room, now painted out in blue and yellow by the girls ­ where they can talk more freely, as well as enjoy girl-friendly games and activities. The "Girls' Group" now meets twice a week, and has 15 regular members.

"I feel better here than if I'm outside ­ I feel safer," says Keeley, 11. "It's only to do with girls, nothing to do with boys, and you can express your feelings. It's really fun," says Swrapana, 12.

Female solidarity aside, several of the girls confess that they would really rather be boys. "You'd get more attention, and you wouldn't have periods," says one.

"I'd prefer to be a boy," agrees Swrapana. "But I wouldn't behave like the boys here, it isn't worth it. I wouldn't be bad ­ because I'm not that sort of person. I'm supposed to set a good example, because I'm a class rep."