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Sometimes it's hard to be a boy

Debate over boys' under-achievement fails to recognise social pressures and the rigidity of the curriculum, says David Spendlove

ith the examination period now upon us again, we await the inevitable results showing that girls have out-performed boys in all subjects and at all levels. There then follows the usual media frenzy with headlines about boys' underachievement and the usual trivialised, low-level responses from education ministers saying that yet another initiative is being introduced.

However, the debate over the underachievement of boys is complex. Firstly, we do not actually know if boys are underachieving. But if so, what are the assumptions based upon? Secondly, if they are underachieving who are they underachieving against - girls, previous generations of boys, themselves? If we are comparing boys against previous generations of boys, what are we using for comparison? The ability to use a Sony PlayStation, or play in a skiffle group? The reality is that it is very difficult to compare constantly-changing groups.

Is it fair to both groups to compare boys against girls? It appears that girls mature earlier than boys and have a different mentality and outlook on life. It is therefore folly to make such comparisons yet, come mid-August when the examination results are published, this is exactly what will happen.

Boys are part of a rapidly-changing society and their vulnerability appears more exposed than ever. More importantly, it needs to be established which boys are more vulnerable than others and what we can measure to recognise their achievements and raise their self esteem. Race, class and age are all factors in defining the likely success of boys. But what does it mean to be a teenage boy in the 21st century? First of all, your teachers will be predominantly women, you will have a vast range of other interests that are often not valued by school and you will go through stages where you have lots of energy followed by little energy. Your future role in society will be ill-defined, you will have heard that you are underachieving and heads of year and the senior management team will probably be obsessed by your ability to get a grade C.

Whether boys can achieve more in schools is a different matter. Again, it depends on what you measure, when you measure it and how you measure it. We could, of course, manipulate the examination system so that boys achieve better results, something which seems to have happened in this year's key stage 2 reading test (TES, May 25). Is this what we want? Those naive individuals who talk about the crisis of boys' underachievemet may say yes. However, the main task has to be preparing boys for life in an adult society which changes rapidly. Below are some key issues we should all remember before we start labelling boys as underachievers.

* The role of the young male in society has changed. In the past, the difficulties associated with adolescence were eased by the fact that boys had a clearly-defined identity. That identity has been challenged as a result of changes in employment, education and the family.

* During the teenage years, growth spurts cause significant conflict at school. Bouts of clumsiness are often associated with growth spurts, while boys, who often look older than they really are, are more likely to be accused of behaving immaturely. Physical size differences can also cause conflict within groups as friendly fighting can be perceived as aggression or bullying.

* Male role models promoted through television and magazines are often part of a new "laddism" which is given credibility through the media. Television programmes such as They Think It's All Over and magazines such as FHM promote the smug answer rather than the correct answer: it is better to be quick-witted than correct.

It is important to challenge this culture, but this should not be at the cost of alienating boys - who merely reflect our society.

* During adolescence, cognitive changes occur, enabling boys to challenge hypotheses. They become capable of abstract thoughts and independence which may not always be compatible with the rigid curriculum we have. The conformity demanded by the curriculum and assessment system means there is little time for individuals whose talents cannot easily be measured. This area needs further research and development.

* There is a tension between primary and secondary education, which results in less progress in the early years of secondary school. There are also differences in organisation and methodology, which currently prevent a coherent approach to education. The lack of male role models in the primary sector is also an issue.

To be a teenage boy in the 21st century can seem bleak. Boys now have increased rates of suicide, exclusion from school, special needs and eating disorders. This represents a rising minority of pupils who we must be concerned about and accountable to. The reality is that boys will be boys and we should never expect anything else. We have to support and encourage them, rather than alienate and label them. They do, after all, represent half our future.

David Spendlove is senior lecturer in education at Liverpool John Moores University

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