Sociology Essays - Boys Education Problem

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Why are boys a problem for the education system today?


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

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

It has thus become possible tospeak in recent years of boys as a distinct problem for the educationalsystem in Britain. As this essay will seek to point out, though, this is by nomeans to the exclusion of other significant problems such as poor classroomdiscipline, weak teaching in some schools and continuing social and economicdisadvantage for some social groups.

It became evident indeed duringthe 1990s that girls were increasingly out-performing boys across almost allsubjects, especially English, Art, Design and Technology and modern languages.This difference emerges in primary school at Key Stage 1 where a higherproportion of girls than boys achieve a level 2 in reading and writing comparedto boys and continues right through secondary school (ranging from 9.1% in 1998to 7.2% in 2002). The gap between girls and boys in reading and writingcontinues 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 1998and 0% in 2002) (Ofsted 2003, pp. 38-39). These differences are by no meansunique to Britain since similar differences have been found in otherOrganisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. In all27 OECD countries boys scored lower than girls in reading tests although onlyfive countries (including Portugal and Denmark from Europe) had a smaller gapthan the UK. It is possible to take some pride in the fact that the UK's gendergap is smaller than the average of OECD countries (Ofsted 2003, p. 8)

It is evident that boys do face agreater degree of difficulty in learning compare to girls in almost allsubjects. This gap has probably widened as more opportunities have becomeavailable for girls to excel in a wider range of subjects than twenty to thirtyyears ago. It may therefore be the case that we are not faced with a distinctlynew problem but one that has always been there but is now becoming moreevident. Girls, it is generally recognised, are happy to work over long periodsof time at producing full coursework portfolios. Boys, on the other hand, tendto prefer putting off revision for exams until the last moment, meaning thatthey are reluctant to engage in extensive coursework and prefer crammingthemselves for a final one-off examination (Bleach 1998, p. 13).

The reasons for the difficultiesfacing boys in education can to some extent be put down to basic biological andgenetic differences between the sexes. Boys possess an X and a Y chromosomewhile girls have 2 Xs: some biologists have concluded from this that this makesboys genetically less well disposed towards understanding the feelings ofothers, forcing many to learn social skills which tend to come to girls morenaturally. This makes them more resistant to school discipline and it isimportant to note that in British secondary schools boys are four times morelikely 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 torebel against the constant attention to detail that a course work basedcurriculum demands (Bleach 1998, p. 3)

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

Indeed, another way of looking atthis 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 ofcircumstances both inside and outside the school that have produced a situationthat is increasingly disadvantaging boys as a group compared to twenty tothirty 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, therise of the single parent family and its impact on the culture of laddismand, secondly, the teaching regime within schools.

The single parent family and the rise of laddism

In the course of the 1990sresearchers in education tended to shift their attention away from extra schoolforms of explanation for the success and failure of children towards moreschool-centred approaches. This was driven to a considerable extent bypolitical values as radical researchers became increasingly hostile toexplanations for the relatively poor performance of working class children inschool in terms of working class family life The newer school-centred approach,by contrast, has been keen to stress poor performance in terms of unequalallocation of classroom resources as well as the bias and hostility amongteachers towards certain categories of pupils and their active sponsorship ofothers (Foster, Gomm and Hammersley 1996, p 111).

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

One of the central explanationsfor the relatively poor performance of many boys relates to the changingstructure of the family in Britain. High divorce rates and family break-upshave impacted more highly on boys compared to girls. Boys, it has often beenargued, need a male role model more than girls and if they are unable to findsuch a role model within the family in the form of the father than they willseek one elsewhere as a yardstick for masculinity. Often this can be amongother young men similar to their own age and this leads to them identifyingthemselves with a very limited conception of a boy as a non girl. This thenleads them to valuing coolness, hardness and in some cases a homophobic andanti gay outlook (Neall 2002, p. 13). Here are the ingredients of a culture ofladdism that has been much talked about in recent years in terms of the antisocial behaviour of many young men both in school and outside. It has oftenbeen used to explain yob culture in city and town centres as well as theunruly behaviour of soccer hooligans.

Macho and lad culture haveclearly penetrated into schools and has some impact on the poor performance ofsome boys in school. Some research conducted by Keith Shipman and Keith Hicksin 1998 for example pointed to the importance of what was termed boys peergroup culture and that for a small number of boys home background has such anegative effect on motivation and is causing such disruption in their livesthat 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 haveescalated in many schools to the point where a distinct anti learning culturehas taken hold preventing many boys as well as girls from doing any seriouswork in class.

This anti learning culture amongboys takes a number of forms in schools. It is manifested by a reluctance toengage with lessons and either passive withdrawal from the teaching process oractive disruption of lessons. In addition it can lead to progressive nonattendance and truancy from school as well as the involvement with gangcultures which have now penetrated many schools in Britain, especially in majorcity areas. The anti learning culture can in some cases contribute to a declinein the morale of many teachers who may leave the profession and so furtherundermine the confidence of many boys in schools where there is a rapidturnover of teaching staff.

The anti learning culture amongboys 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 andhave turned it almost into a fashion accessory. This has led to a situationwhere it has become cool to be a fool, which is a kind of self preservationmechanism coming into play. Rather than be put down, boys will put on a frontthat they want to under-perform or be disobedient from their own choice(quoted in Bale 2003).

This anti learning cultureembraces girls as well as boys in many schools and, from recent reporting inthe media, appears to be spreading to the point where many schools have lostcontrol of pupil discipline. This is an issue that schools do not like to havereported but, as the recent undercover filming by one supply teacher of aseries of classes that were seriously disrupted, has led to the point in anumber 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 anexaggeration to say that this is the whole explanation.

The situation within schools

Another type of explanation forboys. relatively poor performance compared to girls focuses on the regimeoperating within schools. Here the main issues concern both the allocation ofschool resources as well as the type of teaching employed to cater to the needsand interests of boys.

There is no real evidence thatresources within schools are allocated in a distinctly gender-biased way tofavour girls. Indeed traditionally schools resources have been skewed infavour of subjects in which boys have traditionally excelled such sciencelaboratories, carpentry, metal working and sporting facilities. The issuerelates 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 ina rigorous manner. Much of the research in this area has been of an ethnographicnature based on the participant observation by researchers in class. It may bepossible to show from this research that the attention of teachers is unequallyallocated to particular groups of pupils though it is still difficult from aseries of snapshot observations to deduce from this the actual overall amountof teacher attention that is misallocated or its frequency (Foster, Gomm andHammersly 1996, p. 111).

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

In addition it is also evidentthat many boys performed far better in schools which have an ethos encouraginghigh standards and that engages their interest and commitment and that insistson good behaviour and close partnership with parents Boys tend from thisevidence to perform much better in schools with a good learning culture whereasgirls are rather better able to learn from indifferent or poor teachingcompared to boys (Ofsted 2003, p. 3). The implication of this is that manyschools need to rethink their teaching and learning strategies in order todevelop a whole-school focus that employs base line data in order to measurepupils progress and takes into account gender. By setting targets forindividual pupils it becomes possible to raise expectations as well as trackthose pupils who are under-performing. The adoption by schools of a mentoringsystem may also help in this process as the performance of boys is tracked.

It is also evident that singlesex schools in many cases help a lot of boys. In contrast to the picture ofthe twenty to thirty years ago where under-performing girls were oftenconsidered to be better off in single sex schools. It is now often argued thatboys perform better in situation where they do not face competition fromgirls. The 2001 GCSE results appear to confirm this as boys achieving 5+A*-Cgrades was higher in single sex schools except for schools where over 50% ofpupils were entitled to free school lunches, suggesting that family backgroundalso plays a role in this. Boys from middle income homes are thus more likelyto do well in single sex schools than mixed ones where this may be less so forboys from poorer backgrounds (Ofsted 2003, p. 27). However only 7%of boys incomprehensive schools are in single sex schools, though the implication ofthese results may be that boys as a whole will benefit from more single sexschooling. It should also be pointed out that the results for girls also confirmedthat girls in single sex schools outperformed girls in mixed schools (Ofsted2003, p. 270.


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

The sociological explanations forthis underperformance can be located both outside the school in general socialand economic trends as well as within schools themselves and their teachingregimes. While the first is often referred to the main emphasis in much recentdiscussion such as the 2003 Ofsted Report on Boys Achievement stresses thecentral role of the teaching within schools. This emphasis is part of a moregeneral shift in educational research since the 1980s towards the school andaway from wider economic and class factors though as Foster, Gomm andHammersley point out this has led to a redefinition of the concept ofeducational inequality away from the original concept of equality ofopportunity towards the concept of equality of outcome. This has also meantthat almost anything that schools do can be treated as contributing toeducational disadvantage through exploitation of the uncertainty whichsurrounds our understanding of the effect of treatment on outcomes (1996, p.176).

It is probably too easy to blame schools for theseapparent disadvantages for boys which also need to be explained in terms ofwider pressures from the surrounding culture outside schools. Getting thebalance right in this form of educational debate though is probably never goingto be very easy.


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

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

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

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

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