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Exceptions that prove the role

Why do some boys suddenly turn into academic refuseniks? Cathy Byrne says they are just trying on their gender strait jacket for fit

The children in my mixed Year 1 and Year 2 class (five to seven-year-olds) were talking about the presents they had for Christmas. While none of the boys would have wanted any of the girls' presents (Barbie dolls, jewellery, jumpers), a fair few of the girls would have been happy with Action men, computer games and football kits.

This set me thinking about boys and disaffection at school. A few of the boys - anxious-to-please, butter-wouldn't-melt, eager and enthusiastic in Year 1 - had started to change at six-and-a-half. Their behaviour had started to deteriorate and their enthusiasm, especially for reading, writing, dance and music, had given way to a "do I have to do that?" attitude.

They had also become fiercely competitive, and started refusing to take on any tasks if they were not certain of success. Many started to demand constant reassurance that their work was "the best" and would give up, rather than "have a go" with spelling. If it was not going to be right, they were not going to do it.

This didn't happen to all the boys. It was mostly those who lacked confidence and had a poor self-image. If the boy had learning difficulties, the problem was compounded as he began to realise his place in the pecking order. And if there were no learning difficulties to start with, this is where they began. The child's lack of effort and enthusiasm, attention-seeking and inappropriate behaviour set up a vicious circle of under-achievement and disaffection.

Why should this happen at such a precise moment? Children with September birthdays were affected earlier than those born later in the academic year. And then it hit me - gender. I had read that children realised by the age of seven whether they were boys or girls, and perceived the roles as fixed, with no overlaps. Boys never make mistakes, never lose, don't read or write, don't dance, don't think school is cool.

This thinking goes deep. No boy will wear socks he perceives as "girls'", for instance. He will not ride a girl's bike (even though a girl will ride his). He will refuse to pick up a book if the cover suggests it contains "girly" subjects (and might stop picking up books at all, just to be on the safe side).

And this made me consider the role of boys and men in general. To an extent they are in the same situation as women a century ago - forced into a small, sharply-defined role and ridiculed if they step outside it. Women now have all the options. They can take on any and all male roles, hobbies and ways of thinking while keeping all the female ones. But men face ridicule if they step outside the confines of their rigid gender stereotypes.

The exclusively male roles have disappeared and women have muscled in on all the others - no wonder some young men look on and despair.

I believe a significant minority of boys under-achieve at school because they paint themselves into a tight gender role corner. We can identify these children at seven, so it should also be possible to remedy the situation.

Some pointers for action:

* help them to develop a more positive self-image;

* give them mentors (men or older boys) to act as role models;

* help them understand the rel-evance of education;

* make their education more relevant by matching the curriculum, teaching methods and materials more closely to their interests and aptitudes;

* give them individual help so they don't fall behind;

* make school cool.

Cathy Byrne is deputy head of Shaw Park Primary, Hull

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