By Paul Connolly
This book follows the sandwich model: for the filling, juicy case studies of two contrasting schools in Northern Ireland; and, around the outside, nourishing chapters of theorising, a critical review of the rhetoric and reality of the problem, and a detailed discussion of the strategies needed to sort everything out. Of these, probably the most useful is the chapter that sets the factual record straight, dismissing some current "explanations" of boys' under-achievement: it's not their brains, neurones or testosterone that are to blame; it isn't a question of girls holding boys back, or the feminisation of schools, or an epidemic of laddish behaviour. Rather, Connolly argues, the key factor in boys' poor educational performance relative to girls is "masculinity itself" or, rather, masculinities.
This is the rationale for the case studies that follow: one school in an affluent, peaceful, middle-class area, and another in a seriously disadvantaged working-class area, riven by sectarian violence. It is also the starting point for the author's research questions: what are the dominant forms of masculinity in the early years, and how do they influence boys' attitudes towards schooling?
Between October 2001 and June 2002, Connolly spent a day a week in each of the two primary schools, observing five and six-year-old boys, and interviewing boys, teachers and parents. In the middle-class school, dinosaurs are cool but reading is rubbish, while, on the other side of the tracks, resistance to school reaches dizzy heights. Boys in this school are not without enthusiasms, but these appear to be football, fighting, wrestling, pulling down girls' trousers and marching with the local loyalist flute band. The chapter on home-school relations in this school is even more depressing, as parents describe how the teachers discourage their children from even entering for the 11-plus.
Bad news all round then, including the research process itself: in particular, there are some dodgy interview questions that virtually invite the boys, across the class divide, to assert their innate superiority: "If you had a choice, would you want to be girls or boys?"; "Would either of you like to be a girl?" The boys' answers fall smoothly into the stereotyped trap prepared for them.
Nevertheless, this book asks some serious questions, not least of which is: why do we worry so much about gender differences when social class has a much greater impact on achievement? Furthermore, why are so many teachers apparently so willing to accept their pupils' low levels of achievement on entry as a sure and certain guide to the future? And, lastly, when are we going to learn what Bronwen Davies tried to teach us long ago (in Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales) about the need to go beyond male-female dualism, so that we can position ourselves, and our pupils, as neither male, nor female, but human. I'm yet to be convinced that studies such as Connolly's are going to help us take this tremendous step forward.