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A better look at boys

Applying the label of 'underachievement' to boys as an entire group is worse than inaccurate - it is dangerous, warns David Spendlove.

The underachievement of boys may not be something teachers of design and technology associate with their subject. However, for the past three years there has been a consistent gender gap in favour of girls' attainment at key stage 3, GCSE and A-level. The gap has averaged around 15 per cent (achieving grade C or above) in favour of girls at GCSE, but of more concern is that this has gap has led to the labelling of boys as underachievers (rather than of girls as being successful).

It was the notional underachievement of boys in Damp;T that I pursued as part of an MA (1998) dissertation and it is one of the hottest topics around. Stephen Byers, the then minister for education, talked about "laddish cultures", while Chris Woodhead reminded us that "...the failure of boys and in particular white working-class boys is one of the most disturbing problems we face within the whole education system". The Design And Technology Association said: "The subject needs to develop its research base significantly and the underachievement of boys must be addressed quickly."

Having been involved with organisations such as Girls into Science and Technology (GIST) and Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) during the late 1980s, I was surprised that rather than celebrate the success of these programmes people focused on the gap between boys and girls.

I began to explore the gender history of the subject. In the 1980s boys would take metalworkwoodwork and girls would take domestic subjects. What was most disappointing was that after 20 years of enormous positive change within the subject we still occupied the extremes of the gender entry table. However, now we have a generic title of design and technology, subdivided into food technology (predominantly occupied by girls) and resistant materials (predominantly occupied by boys).

Should we have seen a change, with more boys taking food technology and significantly more girls taking resistant material options at GCSE? Or has there been at least enough change in the gender entry pattern over the past 20 years for us to believe that Damp;T is slowly evolving? Is a gender gap in Damp;T really a problem for education and should we be trying to close it or not?

The gender entry patterns certainly cloud the picture when analysing underachievement. With pupils tending to follow sytereotypical entry patterns and different Damp;T routes having different assessment patterns, a simple comparison of boys against girls is not possible.

If we are going to use assessment as a mechanism for defining underachievement in any group, we have to ensure that the assessments made are robust and consistent from teacher to teacher and school to school. Unfortunately at present I do not believe this to be true.

The use of coursework as a means of assessment is also considered by many teachers to be detrimental to boys' attainment. This is backed up by research (Arnot M. Recent Research on Gender and Educational Performance, London: Open University 1998) which indicates that girls' average marks at coursework are consistently higher than boys. While other subjects give a choice of coursework or examination, within Damp;T there is no choice. In addition, the use of teacher assessment at KS3, the lack of moderation and scrutiny between schools and the choice of projects which contribute to KS3 attainments could all prove detrimental to boys' (and girls') progress. For example, the use of people contexts has been found to favour girls' progress while the use of modelling tends to favour boys' progress.

There appears to be a tangled web of influence, which could prove detrimental to some boys. What is apparent however, is that not all boys fit into the category of underachievers (for example boys in the South-east tend on average to do better than girls in North-east) and therefore it is undesirable that boys as an entire group should be being labelled. This type of labelling could become a self-fulfilling prophecy for boys.

The main questions are:

* How do different educational reforms affect the attainment of particular groups?

* Is the use of coursework within Damp;T the most effective way of assessing ability?

* Is the current gender gap in Damp;T a fair reflection of pupil capability?

* Is it undesirable to have a gender gap?

* Is Damp;T capability accurately measured at all key stages?

What can the teacher in the classroom do to overcome the gap in achievement? After completing my MA I applied for a Gatsby Technology Enhancement Fellowship (GTEF). Fellowship funding enables full-time teachers of maths, science and Damp;T in UK primary or secondary schools to share and develop their ideas and contribute to the effective and inspirational teaching of their subject. I have used my fellowship to pursue key areas, including assessment and transition issues, relating to underachievement.

Yes, there appears to be an issue with boys' attainment; and, yes, there appear to be groups of boys who may be capable of achieving more. In addition, girls are doing better in public exams (particularly in Damp;T) than boys, who do not appear to be as successful as they were in the past. However, my message is clearly underwritten by the proviso that we should not label whole groups of pupils as underachievers. We must look at the key issues: whatwho defines underachievement and how accurate is this mechanism in deciding on success and failure? Here is just a selection of starting points for discussion:

* Recognise boys' strengths in modelling and generating ideas, and their weaknesses in people contexts and evaluating when creating projects.

* Define design tasks early in the teaching process.

* Develop compensatory education programmes which address pupil weaknesses.

* Involve parents.

* Avoid projects which encourage boys to adopt "laddish culture".

* Try to maintain as much contact between one group and one teacher as possible while ensuring tight monitoring and early intervention.

* Define quality products - display good work * Provide extra-curricular activities.

* Establish technical vocabulary lists.

* Have active lessons with lots of short phases.

* Encourage reading of design-related material or the use of science fiction to inspire designs.

* Balance key stage projects so as not to favour one group of pupils over another.

* Consider how changes made to address underachievement may affect other pupils' progress.

* Employ a variety of teaching styles rather than one where pupils can anticipate your next move.

* Ensure consistency of sanctions between boys and girls.

* Make make sure pupils know how long they have to complete a task.

* Ensure departments are aware of the issues.

* Capitalise on pupil knowledge of consumer and teen culture, for example, MP3 player design, web page graphic layouts.

* Develop an effective, consistent and fair assessment system.

David Spendlove was formerly head of Damp;T at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys. He is now senior lecturer in design and technology education at Liverpool John Moores University. E-mail: D.Spendlove For further details of the Gatsby Technology Education Fellowships contact the Gatsby Technical Education Project, London, tel: 020 7583 0900Website:

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