The trouble with boys

Licker, geek, swot and boff. The words that make boys try less hard at school. By Hilary Wilce
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When an Essex comprehensive set out to tackle its poor exam results a few years ago, it discovered an anti-work culture so strong among the boys that even carrying a book could be social death.

"Some took so much pride in never being seen with a book they had virtual slaves to carry their books to and from school for them," says John Cooper, the head of Nicholas School, Basildon. "The worst thing you could be was a 'boff' or an 'anorak'."

Schools have been battling for decades to boost the confidence and achievements of their girl pupils. Now their very success has thrown up a second gender challenge - boys. Because while girls are doing better and better in school, boys are struggling to stay put, and the gap between the sexes is widening steadily.

Boys now do less well at every level of GCSE than girls, and less well in English from the age of seven onwards. They are less conscientious about homework, less organised about bringing the right books to class, more likely to get in to trouble with their teachers, and four times as likely to be excluded from school. Out of school, they read fewer books than girls and spend more time watching television and videos.

The good news is that schools that recognise these problems can do much to keep boys motivated and on track. Nicholas School, which has introduced a programme of mentoring, after-school classes and residential courses, has seen the boys' achievements rise steadily, from 86 per cent getting one or more GCSE passes in 1994 to 96 per cent two years later.

For some critics the current anxiety about boys' achievements is only a negative reaction to girls' success. Boys, they point out, still show more confidence with design and technology than girls, still achieve more high-grade A-levels, and are holding their own in National Curriculum tests in maths and science.

But researchers say these differences are unlikely to hold. Girls are already advancing on the boys' strongholds of maths, science and technology, and the general achievement gap at every level is growing.

"Boys arrive at school less well prepared for learning than girls, and it goes on from there," says Ralph Tabberer of the National Foundation for Educational Research. "I think most people now accept that that's the general picture."

Many reasons are given. Boys are less good at language-based learning than girls, less articulate, and less socialised - all of which hamper primary-school learning. At secondary level, they mature later, have a natural aggression that makes them less willing to accept authority, and are more likely to be criticised and undermined by their teachers. And in today's service economy, while many girls can look forward to good jobs in offices, banks and retailing, boys are far less sure what the future holds for them, or whether it's worth making any effort on its account.

But go into schools and ask young teenage boys - the age at which attitudes to school can decline sharply - why they are being outstripped by girls and their answer is far more simple: it's their friends.

At Homewood School and Sixth Form College, Tenterden, a flourishing Kent comprehensive, pupils are matter-of-fact about this and its consequences.

"Friends are what matter in the end," says 14-year-old Simon Eels. "If you say you're going to the library to get some work done, or something, and they go, 'What you want to bother with that for?', you don't go."

"You're duty bound to be like your friends," says Chris Hayward, 13. "You feel you'll be laughed at if you're not."

"I know I'm going downhill this year," says Andy Lowe, 14, philosophically. "I know I'm in with the wrong group. I think I've got the power to hold out against them - I hope I have, because I don't want to go like them - but I'm definitely going the wrong way at the moment."

All these boys know "for a fact" they could do better if they wanted to, but work is not a priority.

"It's not that girls are more intelligent than us," says Chris Hayward. "It's just that they can put their minds to things better than we can."

The school's assessment co-ordinator, Mike Denning, agrees and says the school is looking at ways of targeting students performing below ability - many of whom will be boys.

"It's a question of self-motivation," he says. "Boys tend to be less committed, less conscientious than the girls. They seem to have this belief in an innate intelligence which will somehow get them by."

But traditional female diligence - hours spent on homework, and hands up in class - is now being reinforced by such powerful new levels of confidence that boys in co-ed schools are complaining they can't get a word in edgeways in classroom discussions. In response, some schools are experimenting with boys-only English classes, while parents are beginning to look with new interest at single-sex schools for their sons.

"Girls are definitely more articulate than boys, particularly about how they feel about things," says Peter Braggins, head teacher of the Skinners' School, a boys' grammar school in Tunbridge Wells.

"We had Jonathan Miller here to talk to our sixth-form boys, and we invited the girls' grammar school to take part, and I have to say it was the girls who asked all the questions."

The Skinners' School is a high-flying environment that soars in the exam league tables, but even here the boys work hard to make sure that they aren't seen to be trying hard.

"Licker," says Jonathon Angel, 13. "That's what you get called if you have your hand up all the time. Licker or swot ... "

"Or geek," says James Balcombe, 13.

"It's OK to get good grades, but you can't be seen to be so unsociable that all you do is work," says Daniel Tydeman, 13. "Even if you know all the answers, you don't want to put your hand up too often in class."

It's a line they tread instinctively - slacking in subjects that don't matter, "like RE", being careful to care more about sport than work, and learning to hide what really matters to them.

"I think my attitude to my work is probably more intense than I project," says Roman Tagoe, 13. "I want to study medicine, so I know I've got to do well, but I don't want to be seen as someone who just works all the time."

These boys think girls are doing well at school because they mature earlier, and start to be more serious at a younger age. But, like the boys at Homewood School, they are dismissive of what they see as girls' pointless diligence - why write an 800-word essay, if 300 words gets all the main points in? - and just as confident that they can improve overnight if necessary.

Yet this blithe male confidence is probably misplaced in an educational world that emphasises course work as much as one-off exams. And while clever boys may still be able to stamp on the accelerator when needed, less able boys can all too easily drop back - and drop out. Look up "boys" on any educational database, and there will be little about academic performance and a great deal on drug-taking, truancy and violence.

However, when Nicholas School, which serves a low-income area and has 40 per cent of pupils on free school meals, began to probe its boys' attitudes, disruption and truency were not major problems.

"It wasn't that they were actively anti-school," says Chris Jeffries, the deputy head. "They were just totally idle."

Using money from the Prince's Trust, the school launched a range of initiatives, including one-to-one mentoring sessions for boys taking GCSE, during which boys not only began to voice their wish to do well, but also to focus more realistically on what they needed to do to achieve their ambitions.

"If they said they wanted to be an accountant," says Chris Jeffries, "we'd say, OK, well, let's look at what grades you need to get to college to do that." Mentors - all teachers at the school - were not only supportive, but offered highly detailed help. What homework when? Which books for what lesson? How much class time is wasted each week, if they only concentrated for 70 per cent of every lesson?

"We found they responded well to seeing things quantified like this," says Chris Jeffries. "They needed help to organise their time, and to plan their revision. They didn't necessarily have the skills to do these things, or any means of acquiring them. But once we could tap into all this, once they saw everyone was being seen, and that everyone wanted to do well, it had a rollerball effect. They all started reinforcing each other. We shifted the goal-posts if you like, and the effects are quite visible in school."

The school is particularly pleased to have been able to reach boys of all abilities, and from whatever background.

"It isn't easy for a pupil to operate in two different environments, but we have been able to say, without being intrusive, 'This isn't the end of the road. It's not impossible. We can help' "