Neither a boffin nor a bodrick be

Few children like a swot, but some find the label liberating because they are left alone

For some, it is the smarmy teacher's pet; for others, it is the bespectacled nerd. For yet others, it is anyone with an overly enthusiastic interest in new technology.

But all agree on one point: being a boffin is not good.

Academics from Roehampton and Birmingham universities have examined the role of the school swot in the contemporary classroom. As part of their research, they interviewed 71 pupils aged 12 and 13 in nine local secondaries.

They found that the traditional swot is now referred to by a range of different names: boffin, boff, bod, spod, bodrick, keeno or nerd.

And the varieties of swots are as diverse as the names. The keeno is the conventional swot: academic and diligent, but also excessively eager to please the teacher.

The boffin or bodrick, meanwhile, is a bumbling professor stereotype, while the geek and nerd are defined by their lack of social skills, rather than their academic ability. But all definitions share common elements, the researchers say. "Academic achievement and low social skills and capital within the student peer group are conflated to greater or lesser extents."

But what is geeky at one school is often considered mainstream at another. At one large, urban comprehensive, pleasing the teacher is automatically seen as swottish. At another, high-achieving rural comprehensive, a boy who answered a question correctly in a maths lesson is congratulated by his classmates.

But at all schools, fear of being labelled the class boffin colours pupils' attitudes to academic success. Marie, one of the pupils interviewed, explains: "Whenever I, like, put my hand up and get a question right, everyone shouts out `geek'."

Similarly, the spectre of labelling them swost is invoked by pupils in order to police their peers' behaviour. When one boy is praised by the teacher for asking a relevant question, his classmate responds: "Why did you ask that?" Fear of `boffinhood' keeps him in his place, say the researchers.

In fact, pupils talk about the importance of "balance", stressing the need to have fun and follow fashion, as well as to work hard. The aim is to avoid the fate of the true boffin: having few or no friends. The researchers noticed several high-achieving pupils sitting isolated from others in class.

For some pupils, though, the isolation of boffinhood has advantages. Because they are outside the mainstream, the pressures of conformity no longer apply.

Lily, one of the interviewees, says: "If you're unpopular, then you have no reason to hold back because you haven't got any friends to impress."

Others attribute their isolation to classmates' jealousy.

Speaking of a clever friend, Theresa says: "Some of the people who aren't as clever as him are jealous, so they call him things like boffin and big- head."

High-achieving pupils are often equally dismissive of low-achievers. Many are happy to accept an us-them divide, where "us" is clever and "them" are feckless "chavs" with no work ethic.

"They're all going to have a really bad job or something," remarks teenager Frank.

'The Role of the Boffin as Abject Other in Gendered Performances of School Achievement' by Becky Francis, Christine Skelton and Barbara Read.

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