Attitudes set for a gender bender

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Bethan Marshall examines local authority moves and school initiatives to subvert boys' notions of what kind of achievement is 'uncool'. "Boffins are sad people," confided a Year 7 boy. "Yes," his friend added. "I mean, you must be really bored if you've only got time to do your homework." Girls, it seems, must live lives of unrelieved tedium for they are boffins, according to this group of boys from Bartholomew School in Oxfordshire.

Not only are they boffins, but they conform. "They always say, 'Yes miss, no miss,'" Ben complained. "Yes," agreed Asgeir, "Girls are more co-operative. " His tone did not imply that he saw this as virtue.

So concerned was the school about such entrenched attitudes displayed so young that it joined a local authority initiative to improve the achievement of boys.

Several LEAs have looked at boys' performance in English but few have tackled the problem of their underachievement in general. The Oxfordshire working group carried out research in its own schools and introduced a number of different strategies. It looked at mentoring, career advice, curriculum support and school culture; elements which were pulled together in a final discussion document distributed across the authority.

Sarah Lee, the head of English at Bartholomew, has followed the LEA in setting up a task group in her school. Among the areas examined are boys' career aspirations and work experience; the system of rewards, praise and sanctions; targeting under-achieving boys and, perhaps most significantly, finding out what the youngest boys think of schools and learning.

Sarah Lee believes it is important to address this issue from the start if the school is to broaden the boys' horizons. What the Year 7s reveal about their attitude is nothing new but says much about the way in which they learn.

"I like interactive lessons like computer games," explained Ben. "You can decide what you want to do with it." Paul described, with disdain,the way he was taught maths in primary school. "I hated maths - Peak Maths. It was just a little book and they'd just tell you to work through the page." Maths is now apparently "cool". Significantly, the teacher makes it fun by treating it as a game, one giant puzzle to be solved.

The real block to their learning is that working hard to be clever is seen as conformist. To conform is girlish because girls are more co-operative. "It's a sort of image and a boffiny boy conforms to that stereotype," and, just in case I would see this as a slightly "boffiny" reply, Asgeir immediately added, "I've got better things to do with my time".

In her book Talking 9 to 5, the socio-linguist Deborah Tannen explores the speech patterns of men and women at work. While she is at pains to point out that one linguistic code is not better than another, it is clear that male codes of speech are often more successful. She observes that all those aspects of learning favoured by the boys from Bartholomew - interaction, arguing, problem solving - stand them in good stead in the workplace. There, the diligent "conforming" females are often overlooked.

Tannen observes that the capacity of men to draw attention to their achievements, however tiny, stands them in better stead than their female counterparts, who tend to trust the notion that the work will speak for itself. In the light of this, the approach Cheney School has taken to combat the problem of under-achievement will, potentially, benefit girls as much as boys.

Colin Hall, the deputy head, believes that "trying to change the culture of learning for boys" is best tackled by confronting the differences head-on through the curriculum.

In a unit of work entitled "Language and Gender", the English department does just that. By looking at a number of poems and pieces of writing as well as more general discussion around the topic, the pupils are asked to explore stereotypes in a way that is salutary to both girls and boys. There is evidence that this approach is already broadening the debate among pupils.

Schools face a dilemma. They exist in a society where certain forms of masculinity, particularly among the high achievers, are still rewarded in a way that compliance is not. So what schools are demanding of boys is perhaps more of a problem than the boys' own attitudes.

For it appears that to become a successful school in an era of prescriptive tests and league tables, we demand a type of conformity from boys that may be counterproductive, while encouraging girls to behave in a way that, however successful it makes them at school, may not help them in later life.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in education at King's College, London.

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