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A female kind of trouble

Girls can be disaffected too, and a timely collection explains how. Andrey Osler is impressed.

Problem Girls: understanding and supporting troubled and troublesome girls and young women. Edited by Gwynedd Lloyd. RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99.

Teachers looking for research-based books on children with emotional and behavioural difficulties may be being misled, according to Gwynedd Lloyd, the editor of Problem Girls.

Lloyd notes how much of the advice on "problem pupils" focuses on boys. One influential book, Effective Schools for Disaffected Students, published in 1993, was in fact based on research carried out in a residential school for boys, and she suggests this tendency to equate "students" or "pupils" with boys continues today.

It is difficult to see how any writer can make generalised claims about effective schools or effective strategies if half the school population, namely girls, has been overlooked.

Lloyd brings together researchers and practitioners with a range of perspectives, from behaviour support services, social work, child mental health, the criminal justice system and teaching, to address the needs of girls and young women experiencing personal difficulties. Some may be disruptive, some are bullied, some withdraw from learning, and others may be violent or be excluded from school. Some have experienced disruption or abuse at home, and others may be struggling to cope with poverty.

The contributors stress that problem girls are not a distinct category and should not be labelled as such. All girls are likely to experience difficulties at some time in their school careers. Becky Francis reports on research examining the different ways in which social class, race and gender intersect in the classroom, leading girls from different backgrounds to adopt different behaviours, and teachers to make particular assumptions.

So, for example, some types of assertive behaviour by working-class girls are judged inappropriate. Girls from South Asian backgrounds are often expected to conform to particular stereotypes and are still regularly assumed to have oppressive home cultures.

A complementary chapter by Cecile Wright explores how African Caribbean girls find ways of surviving in "hostile spaces" at school. Their behaviour and responses to teacher expectations need to be analysed if we are to offer appropriate support.

Gwynedd Lloyd is concerned that many of the proposed strategies for addressing young people's needs assume their problems can be explained in terms of individual psychology or biology. This approach, she argues, fails to recognise the social contexts in which students are labelled. An individual's behaviour is explained in terms of their disorder, as if they simply can't help the way they are. Lloyd contrasts this deterministic approach with that which denies any biological or psychological influences and which explains challenging behaviour in terms of resistance to oppressive school structures. This interpretation denies the very real distress and pain which many young people experience.

Problem Girls confirms how misleading it is to generalise about disaffected students drawing solely on boys' experiences. Girls often react very differently from boys to similar difficulties. Nor do all girls (or boys) experience school in the same way. In a chapter reporting on research into girls and young women in the London borough of Newham, Leora Cruddas and Lynda Haddock confirm what Kerry Vincent and I reported in our book Girls and Exclusion (RoutledgeFalmer, 2003): that biased assessment procedures focus on identifying challenging behaviour rather than emotional problems.

Many girls suffer silently from the effects of depression, bullying, bereavement and so on. As one educational psychologist told us, schools find that the problem of a girl experiencing emotional distress is "not as pressing as a 6ft kid who's throwing desks about". Consequently, girls receive fewer of the available resources. Girls without appropriate support may end up in the child welfare and criminal justice systems.

Teresa O'Neill, examining girls' experiences in these settings, observes that they are regularly labelled deviant and troublesome, even when their behaviour is not criminal. Setting her analysis within the framework of children's human rights, she points out that the UK locks up more children than any other EU country. She argues, as does Mary Jane Kehily, that girls are still subject to sexual double standards, both at school and in other settings.

Vulnerable girls are subject to greater surveillance than their male peers and may be given inappropriate placements, often in secure residential care. Not surprisingly, they often run away, leaving them particularly vulnerable to prostitution.

Problem Girls is timely. As Colleen McLaughlin reminds us, policy initiatives on extended schools are being developed and there is a renewed interest in the contribution schools can make to young people's social learning and psychological well-being. This book deserves to be widely read by teachers and policy-makers alike.

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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