High-achieving boys are redefining literacy as a male-friendly subject that provides the key to economic success, new research reveals.
And they see achievement in literacy as an example of masculine competitiveness, demonstrating their classroom prowess and superior ability.
Boys' underachievement in literacy is repeatedly highlighted as a national problem. Christine Skelton, of Birmingham University, notes that this underachievement becomes increasingly marked as pupils progress through school: in 2008, the gender gap increased from 10 per cent at key stage 1 to 14 per cent at KS 2.
She points out that the subject has long been associated with girls and "feminine" skills. While upper-class boys in the 18th and 19th centuries studied classics, English was introduced as "a sop to women demanding a higher education".
Even today, boys regularly make comments such as: "English is more suited to girls because boys like sport, heavy stuff".
But, Professor Skelton points out, there are some boys who do well in English and enjoy it. She interviewed 35 high-achieving Year 12 boys, eight of whom claimed that English was one of their favourite subjects. Significantly, all eight of them were also popular.
In fact, the more confident the boys were in their own masculinity, the less concerned they were about displaying some of the more stereotypically feminine qualities - such as empathy or self-reflection - associated with the subject.
These pupils generally emphasised the similarities, rather than the differences, between boys and girls. So Michael, who enjoyed English, said: "Most of the things I do aren't boyish. They're like both sexes." And Toby said: "If I was a girl . I'd still have my own thoughts."
Nonetheless, the boys who admitted to enjoying English tended to value its more stereotypically male qualities.
"English sits alongside `masculine' subjects maths and science as the three core subjects in the national curriculum, which are at the forefront of testing and assessment procedures," Professor Skelton said.
"Boys who choose to take it up . produce themselves as the desirable subjects of the marketplace: autonomous, competitive and rational."
So striving for high grades became the classroom equivalent of sports- field competitiveness. "I'd rather be clever than not as clever," said Sean. "I don't mind people looking up to me." And Eric added: "I feel like I'm doing the stuff that other people can't."
These boys saw themselves as consumers of education, making responsible choices that would enable them to compete in the wider world.
As a result, they assumed the position of classroom judges, pronouncing on teachers' knowledge and skill. While girls remained anxious about how they might be judged by teachers, boys played the role of consumers, assessing their teachers' competence.
"I don't really get on with some of the teachers," said teenager Eric. "I like to be a bit more active in lessons."
Professor Skelton concluded that Government schemes to tackle boys' underachievement in literacy often overlook the subject's inherently male appeal.
"It might be that there is potential for English to be revisioned by boys . on the basis of its possibilities to exert power and superiority among peers, its high status as a core subject, its constant use as a measure of pupils' abilities and skills, and the opportunities it offers to perform accomplishment and expertise," she said.
- English has been seen as a "female" subject since the 18th century, when boys traditionally studied classics instead.
- Boys who are confident in their own masculinity are generally more willing than their friends to admit to enjoying English.
- Use of English is regularly tested, some boys see it as vital for classroom competitiveness.
- For these boys, doing well in English is the key to economic success.