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Boys' underachievement has been a problem for centuries. The current panic is down to social change, argue the authors of a new book

ALMOST every week there is yet another story about boys' underachievement in schools in The TES. But is this a new story? And, if not, why are we so worried about the problem now, when it did not bother us in the past?

In Failing Boys? various authors point out that the story of boys' underachievement has been around for a long time. Just over 300 years ago, John Locke contrasted girls' success in French, which he attributed to "prattling" with the governesses, with boys' failure to learn Latin. More recently, girls had to do better than boys in the 11-plus to get into grammar schools. Otherwise they would have far outnumbered boys in selective schools.

So why the panic now, when we weren't worried before? One reason is that boys used to move easily into jobs without good qualifications, in the days when working-class sons followed fathers into the mines, the docks, or factories.

Another is that, as a nation, we are more worried about our competitiveness in the global economy, which is seen as linked to school-based achievement. A third is that structural barriers to girls' achievement used to mean boys always did better in the end.

And if boys' academic achievement, at least in some areas, has been a problem for so long, why haven't we done anything about it before? This is partly because boys' underachievements and girls' achievements have generally been explained away, rather than explained.

Boys' failures have been seen as everyone's fault except the boys themselves - blame has been attributed to teachers, to the wrong pedagogy, the wrong texts or whatever. But boys' successes have been seen as resulting from innate brilliance, intellect or natural potential.

For girls, by contrast, educational success has traditionally been put down to teaching methods or explained away as merely because of their neatness and hard work. Where they have done badly, it has been blamed on lack of ability. In other words, girls' failures have been seen as inherent to their sex, while boys' achievements have been all their own.

So what has changed? First, the end of the 11-plus has removed some of the structural barriers to girls' achievement.

Second, feminism has had an impact on schools and the world beyond. Women are now allowed to be well-educated!

Third, there is now huge public and political concern about the schooling of boys, especially as large numbers of unemployed young men are perceived as a social threat. Finally, we have seen a sharp narrowing of definitions of school-based achievement, combined with increasing concern about it.

Debates about boys and schooling take three main forms. There are stories about "poor boys" who are victims of feminism or teachers, about schools which fail them and about their laddishness. Each story results in particular responses.

"Poor boys" stories call for alterations to the curriculum and teaching to favour boys. "Failing schools" stories lead to punitive inspection processes, hit squads and action zones, with which teachers are now so familiar. Like "poor boys" the "boys will be boys" stories call for alterations to teaching to favour boys and, in addition, seek to use girls to police, teach, control and civilise boys.

But these responses are based on over-simplified explanations of what is happening in schools. Not all boys are doing worse than all girls. The picture is far from simple. Rather than spending our time in hand wringing, we must try to understand the complexity of the situation. If we ask "which boys, in which areas, are doing badly?" we find that the impact of class and ethnicity on achievement is greater than that of gender.

We don't need to take resources away from girls and give them to boys. Neither should we adopt solutions which compound the problem by encouraging macho behaviour in boys. We need to examine, in boys, the complex relationship between the demand on them to be "real boys" and their attitude to academic work. Good research must be undertaken on how different groups of pupils learn, such as that in progress at the Institute of Education and Birmingham University.

Teachers need the tools to analyse the gender dynamics of their schools. This has implications for initial teacher education and in-service training. Most of all, we need to examine questions of gender and schooling without panicking about either boys or girls.

* "Failing Boys? Issues in Gender and Achievement," is edited by Debbie Epstein, Jannette Elwood, Valerie Hey and Janet Maw, for the Centre for Research and Education on Gender, at the Institute of Education, London and published by the Open University Press.

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