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Why are boys a problem for the education system today?


Until the middle 1990s boys were not generally seen as a specific "problem" in British education. Many researchers in education tended to focus on the disadvantages facing girls in schools and the way they tended to be channelled into "soft" subjects such as cookery and health and social care while boys were left to dominate subjects such as the sciences (apart from biology), mathematics and wood and metal working.

The increasing penetration of feminist arguments into the debate on education however has increasingly undermined these gender distinctions while the ending of "O" levels in 1988 and their replacement by GCSE led to a more girl-centred examination regime with the focus on course work.

It has thus become possible to speak in recent years of boys as a distinct "problem" for the educational system in Britain. As this essay will seek to point out, though, this is by no means to the exclusion of other significant "problems" such as poor classroom discipline, weak teaching in some schools and continuing social and economic disadvantage for some social groups.

It became evident indeed during the 1990s that girls were increasingly out-performing boys across almost all subjects, especially English, Art, Design and Technology and modern languages. This difference emerges in primary school at Key Stage 1 where a higher proportion of girls than boys achieve a level 2 in reading and writing compared to boys and continues right through secondary school (ranging from 9.1% in 1998 to 7.2% in 2002). The gap between girls and boys in reading and writing continues into Key Stage 3 where it widens to up to a 15% difference in 2002. Only in Mathematics do boys outperform girls by a small margin (2.8% in 1998 and 0% in 2002) (Ofsted 2003, pp. 38-39). These differences are by no means unique to Britain since similar differences have been found in other Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. In all 27 OECD countries boys scored lower than girls in reading tests although only five countries (including Portugal and Denmark from Europe) had a smaller gap than the UK. It is possible to take some pride in the fact that the UK's gender gap is smaller than the average of OECD countries (Ofsted 2003, p. 8)

It is evident that boys do face a greater degree of difficulty in learning compare to girls in almost all subjects. This gap has probably widened as more opportunities have become available for girls to excel in a wider range of subjects than twenty to thirty years ago. It may therefore be the case that we are not faced with a distinctly new "problem" but one that has always been there but is now becoming more evident. Girls, it is generally recognised, are happy to work over long periods of time at producing full coursework portfolios. Boys, on the other hand, tend to prefer putting off revision for exams until the last moment, meaning that they are reluctant to engage in extensive coursework and prefer cramming themselves for a final one-off examination (Bleach 1998, p. 13).

The reasons for the difficulties facing boys in education can to some extent be put down to basic biological and genetic differences between the sexes. Boys possess an X and a Y chromosome while girls have 2 Xs: some biologists have concluded from this that this makes boys genetically less well disposed towards understanding the feelings of others, forcing many to learn social skills which tend to come to girls more naturally. This makes them more resistant to school discipline and it is important to note that in British secondary schools boys are four times more likely to be excluded than girls while in primary schools the ratio is 14:1 (Kitching, 2001: 7). In the case of school work, too, boys are more likely to rebel against the constant attention to detail that a course work based curriculum demands (Bleach 1998, p. 3)

It is probably unwise to push these biological arguments too far since the obvious question arises "if boys are doing badly now as a result of genetic background why have they not done badly in the past?" There are clearly a series of other reasons that need to be looked at in order to be able to understand the relatively poor performance of boys in schools in Britain compared to twenty to thirty years ago.

Indeed, another way of looking at this issue is to see it not as part of a long-standing problem concerning boys' ability to learn but also one that has been produced but a new set of circumstances both inside and outside the school that have produced a situation that is increasingly disadvantaging boys as a group compared to twenty to thirty years ago. Boys are emerging as a increasing "problem" in school policy. In this essay I shall look at this argument in two main areas: firstly, the rise of the single parent family and its impact on the culture of "laddism" and, secondly, the teaching regime within schools.

The single parent family and the rise of "laddism":

In the course of the 1990s researchers in education tended to shift their attention away from extra school forms of explanation for the success and failure of children towards more school-centred approaches. This was driven to a considerable extent by political values as radical researchers became increasingly hostile to explanations for the relatively poor performance of working class children in school in terms of working class family life The newer school-centred approach, by contrast, has been keen to stress poor performance in terms of unequal allocation of classroom resources as well as the bias and hostility among teachers towards certain categories of pupils and their active "sponsorship" of others (Foster, Gomm and Hammersley 1996, p 111).

In the case of the poor performance of boys this new school-centred approach has been favoured in much of the recent discussion and I shall look at this in the next section. However it is also clear that the older extra school approach has a lot of value when it comes to understanding the difficulties confronting many boys in school.

One of the central explanations for the relatively poor performance of many boys relates to the changing structure of the family in Britain. High divorce rates and family break-ups have impacted more highly on boys compared to girls. Boys, it has often been argued, need a male role model more than girls and if they are unable to find such a role model within the family in the form of the father than they will seek one elsewhere as a yardstick for "masculinity". Often this can be among other young men similar to their own age and this leads to them identifying themselves with a very limited conception of a boy as a "non girl". This then leads them to valuing "coolness", "hardness" and in some cases a homophobic and anti gay outlook (Neall 2002, p. 13). Here are the ingredients of a culture of "laddism" that has been much talked about in recent years in terms of the anti social behaviour of many young men both in school and outside. It has often been used to explain "yob culture" in city and town centres as well as the unruly behaviour of soccer hooligans.

Macho and "lad" culture have clearly penetrated into schools and has some impact on the poor performance of some boys in school. Some research conducted by Keith Shipman and Keith Hicks in 1998 for example pointed to the importance of what was termed boys "peer group culture" and that "for a small number of boys home background has such a negative effect on motivation and is causing such disruption in their lives that they can be classed as 'pupils under pressure'"(cited in Ofsted 2003, p. 10). Since the late 1990s this negative peer group pressure may well have escalated in many schools to the point where a distinct anti learning culture has taken hold preventing many boys as well as girls from doing any serious work in class.

This anti learning culture among boys takes a number of forms in schools. It is manifested by a reluctance to engage with lessons and either passive withdrawal from the teaching process or active disruption of lessons. In addition it can lead to progressive non attendance and truancy from school as well as the involvement with gang cultures which have now penetrated many schools in Britain, especially in major city areas. The anti learning culture can in some cases contribute to a decline in the morale of many teachers who may leave the profession and so further undermine the confidence of many boys in schools where there is a rapid turnover of teaching staff.

The anti learning culture among boys is often a form of defence against low self esteem. As one former teacher, Peter Neall, has pointed out "boys have adjusted to being branded as idiots and have turned it almost into a fashion accessory." This has led to a situation where "it has become cool to be a fool, which is a kind of self preservation mechanism coming into play. Rather than be put down, boys will put on a front that they want to under-perform or be disobedient from their own choice" (quoted in Bale 2003).

This anti learning culture embraces girls as well as boys in many schools and, from recent reporting in the media, appears to be spreading to the point where many schools have lost control of pupil discipline. This is an issue that schools do not like to have reported but, as the recent undercover filming by one supply teacher of a series of classes that were seriously disrupted, has led to the point in a number of schools where discipline has effectively broken down (Henry 2005). This can be in part explained by the anti learning culture among many boys; however, since many girls are involved in this disruption too, it would be an exaggeration to say that this is the whole explanation.

The situation within schools:

Another type of explanation for boys. relatively poor performance compared to girls focuses on the regime operating within schools. Here the main issues concern both the allocation of school resources as well as the type of teaching employed to cater to the needs and interests of boys.

There is no real evidence that resources within schools are allocated in a distinctly gender-biased way to favour girls. Indeed traditionally schools resources have been skewed in favour of subjects in which boys have traditionally excelled such science laboratories, carpentry, metal working and sporting facilities. The issue relates far more to the kind of teaching regime that different schools employ, though this is an area that is notoriously difficult to quantify and compare in a rigorous manner. Much of the research in this area has been of an ethnographic nature based on the participant observation by researchers in class. It may be possible to show from this research that the attention of teachers is unequally allocated to particular groups of pupils though it is still difficult from a series of snapshot observations to deduce from this the actual overall amount of teacher attention that is misallocated or its frequency (Foster, Gomm and Hammersly 1996, p. 111).

However the general impression has emerged from the research that has been done that boys' performance is more affected by the kind of learning regime operating in a school compared to girls. For instance, from survey work conducted in 1996 in mixed by Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools (HMI) it was found that in more than two thirds of lessons teachers gave little or no attention to where boys and girls sat in the classroom. This though clearly did have an effect on performance since boys-only groups or pairs within classes performed markedly less well than when the class as a whole was put into either mixed set groups or pairs (cited in Ofsted 2003, p. 8).

In addition it is also evident that many boys performed far better in schools which have an ethos encouraging high standards and that "engages their interest and commitment and that insists on good behaviour and close partnership with parents" Boys tend from this evidence to perform much better in schools with a good learning culture whereas girls are rather better able to learn from indifferent or poor teaching compared to boys (Ofsted 2003, p. 3). The implication of this is that many schools need to rethink their teaching and learning strategies in order to develop a whole-school focus that employs base line data in order to measure pupils progress and takes into account gender. By setting targets for individual pupils it becomes possible to raise expectations as well as track those pupils who are under-performing. The adoption by schools of a mentoring system may also help in this process as the performance of boys is tracked.

It is also evident that single sex schools in many cases help a lot of boys. In contrast to the picture of the twenty to thirty years ago where under-performing girls were often considered to be better off in single sex schools. It is now often argued that boys perform better in situation where they do not face competition from girls. The 2001 GCSE results appear to confirm this as boys achieving 5+A*-C grades was higher in single sex schools except for schools where over 50% of pupils were entitled to free school lunches, suggesting that family background also plays a role in this. Boys from middle income homes are thus more likely to do well in single sex schools than mixed ones where this may be less so for boys from poorer backgrounds (Ofsted 2003, p. 27). However only 7%of boys in comprehensive schools are in single sex schools, though the implication of these results may be that boys as a whole will benefit from more single sex schooling. It should also be pointed out that the results for girls also confirmed that girls in single sex schools outperformed girls in mixed schools (Ofsted 2003, p. 270.


This essay has sought to show that in many ways boys can be seen as a "problem" in the educational system in Britain in terms of the fact that they are under-performing relative to girls. In addition, boys are at the centre of contemporary discussion concerning an anti learning culture that has penetrated many schools along with macho and laddish behaviour.

The sociological explanations for this underperformance can be located both outside the school in general social and economic trends as well as within schools themselves and their teaching regimes. While the first is often referred to the main emphasis in much recent discussion such as the 2003 Ofsted Report on Boys Achievement stresses the central role of the teaching within schools. This emphasis is part of a more general shift in educational research since the 1980s towards the school and away from wider economic and class factors though as Foster, Gomm and Hammersley point out this has led to a redefinition of the concept of educational inequality away from the original concept of equality of opportunity towards the concept of equality of outcome. This has also meant that almost anything that schools do can be treated as contributing to educational disadvantage "through exploitation of the uncertainty which surrounds our understanding of the effect of treatment on outcomes" (1996, p. 176).

It is probably too easy to blame schools for these apparent "disadvantages" for boys which also need to be explained in terms of wider pressures from the surrounding culture outside schools. Getting the balance right in this form of educational debate though is probably never going to be very easy.


Bale, B, 2003. Taming the Classroom Rebels, The Aberdeen Press and Journal, 6 February.

Bleach, K, 1998. Why the likely lads lag behind. In K.Bleach, ed. Reviewing Boys Achievement in Schools. London: Trentham Press, 2-17

Foster, P, Gomm, R, Hammersley, M, 1996. Constructing Educational Inequality. London: The Falmer Press.

Henry, J, 2005. 'The disruption made teaching virtually impossible. I could not believe what I saw'. The Sunday Telegraph, 24 April.

Ofsted, 2003. Boys Achievement, July. London: HMI.