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The monsters within

Boys will be boys - and if state schools recognised that, their performance could improve, argues Andrew Gallacher.

VIVE la difference - except when that difference brings greater academic success to girls. Many schools have identified the underachievement of boys as a key attainment in their development plans. It's flavour of the month with a whole menu of reasons - differing maturity rates, increased motivation for girls due to equal opportunities, and the notion that recent methodologies favour girls' learning styles.

Some say that girls read more than boys, but this is old news. In the recent past, boys opted to read comics instead of books. Yet the reading age of the Eagle and Victor, as well as the D C Thomson and Marvel comics of the Sixties and Seventies, was higher than some of today's daily newspapers.

Traditional boys' comics have largely been replaced by computer game magazines. Herein lies a major gender difference. Instead of reading or studying, boys will spend ages playing computer games, often demonstrating high levels of dexterity, concentration, perseverance and problem-solving in order to progress to higher levels in the games. Girls, though, do not generally spend much time on these often solitary pursuits, and soon become bored.

Boys easily outperform girls in this sphere of activity. Indeed, the Holy Grail for games manufacturers is the discovery that will allow them access to that untapped girls' market. The Pokemon craze provides another example of boys channelling their intellectual energies into non-academic activities. Despite displaying difficulty memorising a poem or tables, they can easily recite the names and evolution of all 150 Pokemon characters. Dr John Richer, a consultant psychologist in paediatrics in Oxford, also points out that a vital skill for negotiating is practised through trading Pokemon.

So it should be clear that boys and girls do not have different abilities but have different cognitive styles. However, a second issue is worth exploring further. It has been evident since the time of Socrates that boys would always rather be doing something other than schoolwork. Hence, education can either always be presented as relevant and interesting or, as is more often the case, teachers can try to make boys learn despite themselves. In other words, as teachers and parents have always been painfully aware, the decline in boys' achievement is, in many respects, a discipline issue.

There are clues in three sectors. In nursery school the girls, as usual, are involved in structured play while the boys fashion guns and swords from Sticklebricks. Open a jotter in a primary school and its neatness will indicate that it almost certainly belongs to a girl. The boys have abandoned care and attentin in the rush to be first finished or to move on to a more interesting but often disruptive activity.

In secondary, where almost all teachers will admit (at least privately) that indiscipline is a major cause for concern, most of the serious referrals are related to boys' behaviour.

Is it mere coincidence that the decline has become more acute since the removal of corporal punishment and the failure to replace it with an effective alternative? Many older male teachers, themselves products of the selective senior secondary system or independent schooling, will relate anecdotes from their own schooldays which feature major indiscipline among highly intelligent boys when confronted by a teacher with poor classroom control.

Learning and teaching, in their present form and under current conditions, cannot function effectively without good order.

Another factor, seemingly overlooked in this latest quest for improvement, is that there appears to be no such crisis in the independent sector. Parents are unlikely to hand over much cash to an establishment where their son is likely to perform worse than someone else's daughter.

However, a glance at the number of boys' names on the list on prize-giving night will quickly allay any such fears. Significantly, independent schools still have the ultimate deterrent of expulsion, coupled with an extremely high degree of parental backing for the code of discipline.

In the end, having noted the gender issues of socialisation, teaching approaches and lesson structure, there are still hard decisions to be made if schools are serious about improving boys' performance or at least halting the slide.

Society still sets great store by academic ability and paper qualifications: more and more parents, including better-off teachers, are voting with their feet and wallets in favour of independent schools seemingly immune to Government policies and educational fads. They are convinced that they are buying good order and, consequently, good results.

Perhaps they believe that if education is boring then at least it provides a realistic preparation for most careers.

State schools can only compete on these terms by literally getting their house in order. Alternatively, they can evolve to become electronically entertaining in an attempt to tame the technology of computer games and the Internet. Teachers who have tried to keep students on task in "open learning" or "distance learning" situations may not be too sanguine about the eventual outcome. What is certain is that boys will continue to be boys, and given the freedom of choice between schoolwork and fun will always say "Pokemon - I choose you!"

Document of the Week, 23

Andrew Gallacher is a principal teacher of guidance.

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