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Able boys succumb to complex pressures

Boys' underachievement is invariably seen as a working-class and ethnic-minority problem. But even clever independent-school boys do not seem to be matching their sisters' achievements.

Researchers who tracked 347 young men and women identified as academically able at the age of 11 found that the relative underachievement of males is particularly marked among those who attended independent schools.

Ninety-nine per cent of the privately educated women in the survey passed at least two A-levels, 92 per cent gained degrees and 12 per cent obtained higher degrees. The equivalent percentages for the men, however, were markedly lower: 89, 73 and 9.

The overall percentages for the former independent and state school pupils interviewed were: women, 89, 80 and 8; men, 86, 73 and 8.

Nevertheless, men were more likely to attend the highest-status universities than women with equivalent qualifications.

No significant differences were found in the class of degree obtained by men and women, although it is often claimed that men are more likely to be awarded firsts, particularly in subjects such as history where examiners are said to favour opinionated essay-writers (see Research Focus, January 9).

Dr Sally Power of the University of Bristol and her colleagues are aware of the danger of over-generalising on the basis of their statistics. Their survey, which began in the early Eighties and has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was designed to evaluate the Assisted Places Scheme rather than gender differences.

They also emphasise that their case-studies (see below) suggest that boys can underachieve because of a complex mix of family, school and peer-group factors.

Despite their caution, the researchers postulate that concern over male underachievement reflects middle-class anxieties. Parents realise that old school ties and family influence no longer open so many doors, partly because many more women are competing for professional jobs.

"Even if there has been as yet no significant reduction in men's career opportunities, increasing uncertainty over the future may well have been sufficient to engender panic amongst middle-class parents over the potential consequences of their sons' educational underachievement," they say.

* "Schoolboys and schoolwork: gender identification and academic achievement", by Sally Power, University of Bristol, Tony Edwards, University of Newcastle, Geoff Whitty and Valerie Wigfall, Institute of Education, University of London. Correspondence to Dr Sally Power, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, 35 Berkeley Sq., Bristol BS8 IJA. Tel. 0117 928 7007. e-mail:

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