A suitable job for the boys?

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Mike Sullivan gets to grips with an absorbing book which debunks the myth that more male primary teachers are the answer to boys' underachievement

Women Teaching Boys: caring and working in the primary school

By Martin Ashley and John Lee

Trentham Books pound;17.99

Any politician or tabloid columnist, and the DfES, will tell you that, after death and taxes, the third certainty in life is that boys in primary schools underachieve. Pointing for proof at the differences in Sats results, they will tell you the achievement gap is caused by boys'

behaviour and attitudes and that the solution is to draft more successful males into primary schools to serve as positive role models.

You can't argue against such common sense. Unless you are Martin Ashley or John Lee. These two teacher trainers bravely and convincingly take on these and many other "commonsense" perceptions and prescriptions in their excellent book and find they don't come up to scratch.

Ashley and Lee remind us that throughout the 20th century and earlier, reports from Her Majesty's Inspectorate and others noted "bad behaviour" among boys. So no change there. When it comes to children's achievements just 20 years ago, the burning issue was not boys' underachievement, but the poor attitude and performance of girls in maths and science. How things have changed - or perhaps not.

One of the book's many strengths is the effective and sparing use of carefully chosen research so it never gets in the way of the text. Without getting bogged down in detail, the authors refer to research by Stephen Goddard showing that inappropriate use of data has led to an overstatement and possibly incorrect construction of differences in achievement between boys and girls.

In the past, where such differences appeared, they were explained as differences in maturation, with the expectation that boys would "catch up".

Does the proportion of male teachers in primary schools make a difference? A useful chapter examines how women have always outnumbered men in primary teaching and, even as late as 1982, there was no suggestion of a gender crisis or great concern about comparative performance. The authors also point out that secondary schools have a higher percentage of male teachers, along with a higher incidence of "laddish" behaviour.

One of the recent arguments for increasing the number of men in primary schools is what the authors describe as "the myth that the problem with boys is the absent father". They tackle this robustly, claiming there is little evidence that boys brought up solely by their mother need a compensatory role model in school. It goes almost without saying that a poor male role model at home or school can do great damage.

The book draws a careful distinction between "caring for" and "caring about" children in school and, in an absorbing two-chapter section on attachment behaviour and theory, redraws the parameters of the teacher's task. At the risk of over-simplifying, the main message is that the teacher's responsibility is to the class and is met by providing worthwhile, interesting work in a positive social climate. The model of good teaching the authors advocate does take account of individual differences and needs, but they have limited sympathy for some of the fashionable methods of behaviour management, noting that there are many unfortunate children in school whose constant attention-seeking is extremely disruptive and for whom behaviour management techniques offer little more than containment.

The involvement of high-status males - local sports stars or entrepreneurs, for example - has been urged on primary schools by policy makers and commentators as a "quick fix" initiative to motivate boys. Great for a picture and a paragraph in the local paper, but, the authors argue, there is little hope that such strategies will make any difference. Children need to see that success is not simply a BMW and a wallet full of money.

What makes the book special is the way in which the authors have gathered evidence of children's views. They are not content with questionnaires but have taken time to talk to children and record their opinions. Their research began in the late 1980s as a study of 250 children, drew on an ethnographic study of 20 boys in a church choir and included a recent project with Year 4 and Year 6 pupils in eight primary schools serving a variety of communities. When they reviewed their tapes of discussions with boys, they were struck by the boys' surprise or even shock at the suggestion that anyone might think differences in achievement were related to gender.

Children explained that differences in success in school were down to individual differences in cleverness regardless of gender and that poor behaviour in classrooms was down to bad classroom management. The opinions of boys in both the Year 4 and Year 6 groups were similar. There was evidence that some boys overestimated their abilities compared to girls'.

Few teacher in primary schools will fail to cheer at the authors' findings about the way in which stereotyping restricts the curriculum for boys and girls. Their plea for an androgynous curriculum - particularly through raising the profile of the expressive arts - is powerful and welcome.

But what about women teachers? Children in the eight primaries were shown a video of various men and women teachers at work. In follow-up discussion, children were told that the researchers wanted to know how they liked to be taught. The gender or race of the teacher did not feature in the children's judgments; what was judged important was confident, enthusiastic teaching and visible rapport with pupils. This comes as no surprise. When we think of our own experiences as children, teachers or parents, the teachers we remember were outstanding because of the quality of their teaching and their positive personalities, rather than because they were a "Sir" or a "Miss".

Women Teaching Boys is written with style and with the reader in mind. This is a book that deserves to be read by all who have an interest in primary education.

Mike Sullivan is an education consultant and former primary head based in the West Midlands

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