Boys' failure is everyone's problem

30th January 1998 at 00:00
The real worry is that girls are being harassed, say Caroline Gipps and Patricia Murphy

The underachievement and teaching of boys is generating rather more hot air than good strategy at the moment.

Peter Wilby (TES, January 16) in his piece on fashion and the anxiety over boys' underperformance said some disparaging things about the book which we produced last summer: Equity in the Classroom: Towards effective pedagogy for girls and boys.

This book was the result of an investigation funded by the United Nations' educational organisation, UNESCO, which asked: "Is there a pedagogy for girls?"- since in many countries performance of girls is the major concern.

In the event it became clear that in England and Wales, Australia, the United States and Finland, the reverse is the case: it is girls who are performing well up to the age of around 16. Hence the shift in the focus of our book towards boys' performance.

UNESCO now reports that the phenomenon of girls outperforming boys has appeared over the past few years in a range of developing countries. This is, therefore, not just a British phenomenon and it is certainly not one that quick-fix attempts to bring boys on board in education, or males into teaching, will overcome.

That brings us onto the next point: the role of researchers. The reason that all but one contributor to the book was female (noted by Peter Wilby) was a good one: the early research on gender has been carried out by women concerned about girls' lack of access to curriculum subjects and their subsequent underachievement. Few men have ever been interested in researching girls' underachievement and the one contributor to the book, Dr John Head, is unusual in having spent much of his working life researching gender and cognitive style.

In the 1970s and 1980s it was not fashionable in education to be concerned with gender. We suspect this is still largely the case. Even now few men work in the field, although for at least the past three years the relative underperformance of boys has become an increasingly featured topic. At a recent international conference on gender and science and technology - areas where males dominate in education and employment - only three men attended from the UK.

However, some female researchers are concerned about the performance of boys. Indeed careful reading of our book shows that far from being behind on such matters, as suggested by Peter Wilby, it reports on recent interventions to support both males' and females' learning and achievement.

The book also makes it clear that for any advances in education we need to consider boys' and girls' learning together. The Institute of Education has run a series of seminars funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on the underachievement of boys: many of the book's contributors took part in that series of seminars, and are now carrying out classroom research on particular issues to do with boys' performance. The seminar series involved the key active researchers in the field - and again men were in the minority.

The issues regarding boys' performance are not simple. They include teaching approach, and content, learning style - not to mention behaviour and motivation - and working-class males' anxiety about their future in employment and career prospects.

So what can we do? One of us has already suggested to school standards minister Stephen Byers and Professor Michael Barber (there are some male over-achievers) that they should go and see The Full Monty so that they can see that it is not just the teacher's fault that some boys aren't switched on to school. This is not only a good and funny film but it graphically depicts the links between gender, education and employment in people's lives; lives in which many feel trapped.

It is research, however, of the kind reported in our book that demonstrates the implications of boys' and girls' different out-of-school experiences, interests and upbringing and hence their view of the world, which has an effect on how they see school.

The real worry is not that the boys will smash the place up, as Peter Wilby argues, but that they are already smashing the girls up: there is increasing evidence of boys' growing misogyny, represented by bullying, harassment and name-calling, reported in schools from Africa, America, the UK and Australia.

It is indeed a serious issue: Wilby and other men are lucky that there continue to be committed female researchers around who want to address the issue and to have the research evidence and practical experience to do so, otherwise all that would be available to them and the boys would be the bullet points of slick PR merchants and good ideas from big business. Basing work on a football theme may well get some boys motivated, but this interest and commitment will have to become generalised at some point, probably sooner than later.

Finally, let's be clear: it is not the white working class boys' underachievement that is the biggest problem, as chief inspector Chris Woodhead has said. The problem is most severe for African-Caribbean boys from "working-class backgrounds", who are also most likely to be excluded from school.

It is also the case that patterns of achievement for girls vary with socio-economic class: things are not all well for the working-class girl (see last week's Research Focus). Many girls and boys from a wide range of backgrounds continue not to realise their full potential in school and beyond, because of the failure of the education system to treat the links between learning and gender with any degree of seriousness.

If as a society we really do want to address the issue of some boys' underachievement, knee-jerk responses are not going to help: we need to do it together and we need to take it seriously, otherwise we are setting up huge problems for our society as a whole.

Professor Caroline Gipps is dean of research at the Institute of Education. Patricia Murphy is director of the Open University's centre for curriculum and teaching studies. Their book is published by Falmer PressUNESCO TES january 30 1998

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