Are girls harder to teach than boys?

Females are good at passing exams and using coloured pencils, but does real understanding of topics elude them?

So girls are harder to teach than boys? Controversial, and of course untrue. Does this mean, then, that boys are harder to teach than girls?

Possibly, but we will need to challenge and unpick that statement before deciding whether or not we actually believe it, or accept what it implies.

On the face of it boys are harder. Their behaviour is more disruptive and often aggressive. Far more boys are excluded than girls; more boys have statements for behavioural difficulties; more boys, seemingly, have to be chemically subdued to make them sit still in class for long enough to learn anything and more of them are diagnosed with learning difficulties.

These factors inevitably make some of them harder to teach. It is also this same list that makes the headlines scream every summer that boys are failing and that all is not right with the world. We have, it is argued, feminised the school system. Those poor boys, bless them, cannot cope with the demands of coursework in the same way as those nice swotty girls. Peachy keen and teacher's pets, the girls work hard and annoyingly, though deservedly, do rather well, along, of course, with a whole host of boys who adopt a similar approach.

Not that the headlines shout quite as loudly or give similar explanations when girls outperform boys in the national tests for 11 and 14-year-olds which contain not a scrap of course- work. Nor did you get much of a fuss when for years girls did better than boys in the 11-plus. This was simply attributed to the fact that girls matured more quickly than boys. Those hormones again. Always providing a ready excuse for the behaviour of boys and somehow taking the shine off the achievement of girls.

I always feel vaguely irked when pundits refer to the "feminising" of school culture. Once more to be female is to be seen as faintly dull and procedural or perhaps, in this case, to be lacking more positive qualities - of risk, of flair, of gusto. Certainly the term, in a school context is always used negatively. Go into the workplace, however, and the same equation between dedication to work and a lack of creativity is rarely, if ever, made. Behind the "feminisation" argument lurks the suspicion that drab women teachers are stifling boys' innate creativity.

The school system is neither male nor female, but it is disadvantaging both boys and girls equally. In the exam-driven, performance-managed culture we have manufactured all children are being asked to work too hard and conform too early. They are having originality and quirkiness stamped out of them. And there is nothing particularly feminine about that.

Some boys show their disapproval more loudly and this does make them harder to teach. A girl has to do far less to achieve a similar status of non-conformity, thus reinforcing the notion that we do expect better behaviour from girls and are tougher on them when they complain. But both need a better deal.

The fact that so many boys find themselves excluded, on Ritalin or the subject of headlines about their performance helps neither boys nor girls. It pathologises boys' behaviour, while implying that the norm is for them to do better than girls, resuscitating a perception that should be lost in the sexist mists of time.

So away with this stereotypical nonsense, asking who is more difficult to teach is the wrong question. We should be wondering how we can best help pupils learn. Or perhaps more importantly, what they need to learn. When I look at some of the demands we make, the dryness of the curriculum and the dreary requirements of the exams, it is a wonder that any of us, teachers and pupils alike, behave at all.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in English education at King's College, London

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