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Complex tales of the males

Researchers have found that boys' underachievement at school is far from straightforward. Hilary Wilce reports.

Boys don't do well at school because most teachers are women, competition is frowned on, and namby-pamby coursework favours dutiful girls over risk-taking boys. Right? Well, no.

Gender in schools has been intensively studied for decades and most researchers now seem to agree that boys do not do well in school for a variety of reasons - many of them to do with society in general, rather than classrooms in particular.

Even educationist Tony Sewell agrees - which is surprising, given that it was his remarks at a recent NASUWT conference that whipped the tabloid press into a frenzy about how the "feminisation" of schools was failing boys.

All he was trying to point out, he says, is that boys are different from girls, and in our drive for equality we are not actually looking at that difference. "Boys can find it hard to sit there writing neatly from the blackboard. But I'm not blaming female teachers for any lack in our boys. I think many female teachers, and mothers, are very interested in what makes boys tick," he says.

However, he does fear for the future of boys who reject school. In the past, they could have got by with manual jobs, he said, but now they cannot, so we urgently need to change their attitudes.

He dreams of giant billboards showing "masculine" men, such as footballers, reading and studying - "I can still remember, from when I was at school, all those posters showing women in white coats telling girls they could be engineers," he said. And he believes schemes to get more men and more male teachers into schools would help, as would more active classroom teaching.

"If we got it right, it would be right for girls, too," he said. "I did some work in a school in Lambeth, and we looked at why the African girls did so much better than the Caribbean girls, and what we found was that the African girls had a massive fear factor from home. They were feeling robotically they had to be dedicated to their work, whatever the teaching was like, while the Caribbean girls were much less inclined to do work for the sake of it. In many ways, they were acting like boys."

Chris Ford, director of Bradford's Excellence in Cities action zone, agrees. The city has been working intensively on boys' attainment (see box). It has found that in a rich and lively school culture, both boys and girls will do well, but "in the absence of that, girls cope, but boys quite quickly fall apart, either in a quiet sense of opting out, or with behaviour issues and so on."

Fears about boys' underachievement are justified. Just over half of boys now begin secondary school with the expected skills in reading, writing and maths, compared with almost two-thirds of girls. And the latest figures from the Department for Education and Skills show that the gender gap is widening.

In 2005, only 51 per cent of 11-year-old boys reached the expected level 4 in reading, writing and maths, compared with 63 per cent of 11-year-old girls. There was a one percentage point drop in boys' scores compared with 2004 and a one percentage point rise for girls.

But the gender gap at GCSE has remained broadly consistent over the past decade - at about 10 per cent - with boys even making some progress. The proportion of girls to boys passing has shrunk over that period, meaning that the same gap is less significant. But the really worrying area is that of black boys' performance. In 2004, only 27 per cent of African-Caribbean boys gained five good GCSE passes, compared with 47 per cent of white boys, and in that group anti-school attitudes appear to be entrenched.

One thing that seems to make life difficult for boys at this level is coursework. The gap between the genders widened dramatically from 2 per cent to 10 per cent soon after the late 1980s, when GCSEs were introduced.

Mr Sewell believes a return to exams would help boys. In this, he has Boris Johnson, the shadow minister for higher education, on his side. Mr Johnson believes boys are mainly motivated by wanting "to thrash the other guy" and that if you take competition out of schools, they will turn off.

But Lucinda Neall, an educational trainer and author of Bringing Out the Best in Boys, says there is more to engaging boys than that. "Boys are lively, humorous, adventurous, risk-taking and have low boredom thresholds," she says. "Courage is really important and they like to do courageous things. When you watch teachers who can get boys on board, you see they are taking account of all this. Some are naturals, but if a teacher can get their head round where boys are coming from, they can deal with it.

"You can introduce topics in interesting ways and make it exciting. Some teachers say, 'Oh, I have to be an entertainer, do I?', but if you do it like this, you save energy because you are not dealing with all the minor disruptions later. You also have to avoid nagging and shouting. Boys always say, 'We get shouted at a lot.' Boys need time to blow off steam. They need to be allowed to do group work, to talk and respond. That way you get their energy channelled into lessons.

"Playtime is important, too, although there can be problems if they come in from fights and arguments, so you have to train mid-day supervisors in dealing with boys, as well as teachers and teaching assistants."

What does not seem to matter at all, according to the research, is whether a teacher is male or female, despite public worries that only 14 per cent of primary teachers are male. The Training and Development Agency is actively trying to recruit more men, but this is entirely to do with wanting the workforce to reflect society, says Mike Watkins, assistant director of initial teacher training.

"However, it is also something parents always say they want, and of course it isn't ideal that half of all children aged seven to 11 haven't had a male teacher," he says.

Mr Watkins says men can be reluctant to consider primary teaching but enjoy it when they take it up - "although some say they are irritated by the stereotypical view in some schools - that they must be the expert in IT, or good at games, or should always take on the most challenging pupils and classes", he says.

International figures show that the gap between boys and girls is broadly consistent across the developed world, and that little seems to touch it.

The prevalence of single-sex schools is irrelevant, and single-sex classes have inconsistent outcomes.

A four-year study of boys' underachievement, by Homerton college, Cambridge, published last year, urged caution about what could be expected from such classes. It pointed to the value of peer leaders, shared reading and getting boys to talk about and reflect on their reading in raising boys' attainments.

Work by Edgar Jenkins, emeritus professor of education at Leeds university, including a survey of 1,200 pupils in England about science lessons, found a consistency with other countries. Boys liked explosions while girls liked studying the human body. He has questioned whether single-sex classes might engage these different interests. "But most of all, what we need is lively, engaging, enthusiastic and competent teachers in front of children," he says.

Mary Thornton, assistant director of learning and teaching at Hertfordshire university, says nothing about the current "feminisation" debate is new.

"There never has been a golden age of lots of men in teaching." she says.

"The peak was just before the Second World War, and there was no great difference in how boys achieved then. There is a long history of complaints about boys behaving badly. It's all much more complicated than these hysterical statements seem to imply. We just have to keep chipping away at it to see what's there."

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