'Boys have internalised the stereotype that they're not supposed to like books or learning'

The prevailing cultural script is that boys do not perform as well as girls in exams. As a result, the stereotype has become self-perpetuating, a renowned sociologist writes

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I first realised that some schools unwittingly adopted a regime of low expectations towards boys 15 years ago. My wife and I were going around to different primary schools in our locality to find out which was most suitable for our son.

The headteacher of the first school tried to reassure us that they had a system of support to help boys overcome their reading problems. Teachers at some of the other local schools also signalled their conviction that our son, like many of his male peers, was less likely to be interested in books and in academic learning than his female counterparts.

Until this point in time, it had never occurred to us that our child would have difficulty with reading. Nor did I realise that many educators imagined that boys were not as clever as girls.

Gender-fixated education

Since my very personal introduction to the world of gender-fixated primary education, I have learned that many teachers and parents have internalised the premise that boys are naturally distracted in the classroom and are less focused and less intellectually curious than girls. I have stopped counting the number of times that parents have informed me that boys are not academic but practical.

Though this imperative towards gender stereotyping tends to be unconscious, it still has a powerful influence on the culture of learning in schools. Back in 2010, a study conducted by colleagues at the University of Kent indicated that the premise that boys were less able than girls had been internalised by the children themselves. The study indicated that pupils of all ages believed that girls were the high achievers.Too often, children are evaluated on preconceived ideas about their gender.

'Boys are less focused'

Bonny Hartley, who led this study, stated: “By seven or eight years old, children of both genders believe that boys are less focused, able, and successful than girls – and think that adults endorse this stereotype.”

She also observed: “These expectations have the potential to become self-fulfilling in children’s actual conduct and achievement. There can be little doubt that preconceived ideas about the abilities, attitudes and behaviour of boys have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is hardly surprising that, if boys are allocated the role of low achievers, they will play the part that is assigned to them.”

Some would argue that gender stereotypes merely reflect the reality of different gender performance. But whatever the cause, many boys have internalised the stereotypes and have become estranged from books and academic learning. Worse still, a mood of fatalism towards the inferior performance of boys has led to a situation where it has become naturalised. And, if boys gain the impression that male children are not expected to read books, then they may well adopt the role that the prevailing cultural script assigns them.

Object of derision

I was delighted to read Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of Ucas, arguing that government ministers need to address what she characterised as the “chronic underachievement of boys at every level of education”.

She is concerned that, after GCSEs, 30,000 more girls than boys were entered for A levels, and that the difference in GCSE performance between boys and girls continues to widen.

Her particular worry is that the issue of boys’ underperformance throughout primary and secondary education puts a cap on how much can be achieved in universities. She rightly fears that a lot of the effort that goes into programmes of widening participation in universities will be wasted, unless boys’ underperformance is tackled in schools.

Unfortunately not much can be done, unless we challenge the culture of low expectations of boys’ performance in schools. From pre-school onwards, it is essential to signal the expectation that books are for boys.

Because of the influence of male anti-intellectualism, the school swot is an object of derision. We need a different language and different attitude towards the education of boys. At present, young boys are socialised into believing that studying is not a masculine accomplishment. Time for a “Real Boys Are Swots” campaign.

Frank Furedi is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent

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