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Fateful quest to be cool

Lads and Ladettes in School: gender and a fear of failure. By Carolyn Jackson. Open University Press. pound;19.99

Audrey Osler welcomes a study which suggests that peer pressure and an attempt to preserve self-worth is behind the 'ladette' movement

Laddish behaviour means many things. In classrooms it tends to mean being boisterous, interrupting, not listening and expressing indifference to work and to teachers' advice.

Carolyn Jackson suggests in her accessible and engaging book that "ladette"

culture, first recognised among post-school-aged young women and associated with drinking and boisterous behaviour, is now shared by a number of schoolgirls: girls and boys are becoming equally "laddish".

Out of school, being accepted as a lad or ladette means young people investing considerable time with their peer group. For many, juggling the demands of academic work, family life and friends is a challenge.

Recognition is often linked to conventional good looks. Popularity demands the latest, expensive fashions and branded clothes, and proving oneself attractive to the opposite sex. Drinking, smoking and having older friends all help.

Lads and Ladettes in School offers new insights into the reasons behind laddish behaviour among boys and girls in secondary schools. Jackson challenges the view that laddish behaviour can be explained largely in terms of boys' efforts to disassociate themselves from activities perceived to be feminine, including school work.

Through questionnaires and interviews with more than 200 students, both boys and girls, and their teachers, she confirms that laddish behaviour is not confined to boys, and that the reasons behind it are complex.

She did her research in eight schools across the north of England, focusing on young people in Year 9 and their teachers. The students were asked to consider their academic goals, their own self-handicapping behaviour, what constitutes laddishness, and perceptions of their schools' learning environments in English and maths. The schools were selected to include a social class and ethnic mix, and a range of GCSE results.

The book draws on insights from social psychology and sociology. Jackson argues that young people of both sexes engage in laddish behaviour in an effort to realise a range of (sometimes incompatible) social and academic goals. They want to be popular, but they also want to avoid appearing stupid in a competitive and performance-orientated learning environment.

Fear of failure is not simply fear of negative peer judgments, but an attempt to preserve self-worth.

The vast majority of young people in Jackson's study see it as uncool to work and believe that academic success is only cool if it is effortless.

Only those able to carry off this impression by, for example, achieving good marks while appearing not to listen in class (and perhaps making good the lost time through homework) can avoid being labelled swots.

Some are in a better position to achieve this than others, with middle-class students having greater access to the Internet and other resources at home. Schools' emphasis on performance leads some students to adopt strategies which are likely to undermine academic success. Both sexes reported telling lies about their marks or the amount of effort they put in for fear of being labelled stupid. Many were unhappy with the practice of teachers reading marks out publicly. Some reported leaving their work to the last minute or not revising in order to avoid a situation where they were seen to fail after considerable and visible effort.

The interviews took place close to key stage 3 Sats and it's interesting how young people's perceptions of the tests differed, according to their school's positions in league tables. Students in more vulnerable schools seemed to experience additional personal pressure. In schools with well above average results, students were assured that the tests were there to assess the school or the quality of teaching.

There's still a gender-related double standard in how this behaviour is viewed, as Kerry Vincent and I reported in Girls and Exclusion (RoutledgeFalmer 2003). Girls are judged more harshly by teachers when they fail to conform to specific ways of being feminine. There's greater tolerance of laddish boys, who are often portrayed as loveable rogues.

Jackson notes that not all aspects of laddishness are necessarily problematic, for example, boys' interest in sport, and girls being assertive.

Importantly, she attempts to explore the policy implications of her findings, arguing that teachers are in a position to develop safer, co-operative learning environments in their individual classrooms, even in the policy-driven context of schools being forced to be fiercely competitive. This is, I believe, a challenge which needs to be developed and further explored.

Lads and Ladettes in School caused me to reflect on the unfortunate ways in which recent research on gender and schooling, which relies on the theory of hegemonic masculinities, has been interpreted by politicians and policy-makers concerned with boys' underachievement.

Websites, training materials and guidance from inspectors have encouraged teachers to focus on boys' needs, at the expense of girls who are, quite wrongly, all assumed to be succeeding. They propose materials which reinforce traditional masculine identities, and methodologies designed to enhance the performance of some boys, without regard for the social or academic impact on all.

This book reminds us of the challenges we face in applying lessons from research. It also highlights a pressing need to focus more broadly on the social goals of education and to rethink the notion of success for all.

Audrey Osler is professor of education and director of the centre for citizenship and human rights education at the University of Leeds

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