"Boys don’t read or won’t read – let them play Xbox instead." "Boys don’t like writing – it’s difficult and pointless – let them watch football instead." "Boys don’t communicate, so it’s OK if they answer with a grunt, eat dinner on their bed and don’t engage."
While we don’t want to try and make boys behave like girls, the over-worn trope that “boys will be boys” in statements like those above provides a convenient excuse: an excuse for boys passively to accept the role society dictates for them, and an excuse for adults engaging with them. And it’s an excuse that is failing our boys.
Now, this article comes with a caveat: I know there will be innumerable exceptions and we could quite quickly get #notallboys trending. However, for so many boys, school is something that’s done to them, a disconnected series of pointless activities they have to endure before they can escape. Parents impose meaningless, arbitrary rules and the only people they speak to are other boys, all trying to conform to each other’s expectations of masculinity.
The data tells us that boys perform less well than girls academically and it’s no wonder: improving literacy is the most effective way of raising attainment. However, literacy is broadly perceived to be feminine –most boys are read to by mums and are taught literacy by female teachers. Boys have almost no role models of male literacy.
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Without good literacy skills, boys fall behind from an early age. Boys’ reading lags significantly behind girls’ and, from the age of seven, progressively, the attainment gap between boys and girls increases. Learners who don’t read well, don’t write well; they can’t communicate well orally, creating barriers to learning across the curriculum.
Without the words and ideas good fiction provides, boys don’t develop the language to articulate emotions and to be understood well. When you can’t do it, you stop trying. When you stop trying, you stop improving. When you give up, what is the point? As their inspiration and motivation swirls down the drain, disengagement and fixed mindsets come to replace them. The link between poor male literacy and poor male attainment cannot be ignored.
We cannot inspire change when we passively accept our own low expectations of boys – this is how we disempower our young men and risk provoking a backlash as they reclaim some agency.
The rise in right-wing extremism has been attributed in some quarters to the need for our disconnected young men to feel powerful. Gang culture and knife crime are also linked to the disengagement of our boys. Many young people of this generation feel stressed, isolated, anxious and spend much of their time on social media rather than interacting meaningfully with real people. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some boys may find joining a gang gives them purpose and makes them feel they belong. Living in a society which doesn’t want to include them, it can give them meaning and a connection – and they are willing to sacrifice a great deal to keep that.
Societies around the world and throughout history have engaged boys in rites of passage which connected them with their societies and cultures. We seem to have lost that and our boys, caught half way between childhood and adulthood, have lost their way. Society excuses boys from success in literacy simply because they’re boys; learning and teaching doesn’t always cater for boys, and those excluded from learning are often also excluded from their communities and societies.
This leads not only to academic underachievement but to an epidemic of poor mental health in our young men and stark figures in crime statistics. Most inexcusably of all, our young men are more likely to die by suicide than any other cause between the ages of five and 25.
We need to listen to boys and to consciously and purposefully make the changes needed in the way we teach them, value them and empower them. Intervention is not just desirable – it’s imperative.
Nicola Daniel is curriculum leader for English, media and literacy at Broughton High School, in Edinburgh