6th October 2000 at 01:00

When teachers have to deal with underachieving pupils, there's no time to consult textbooks on gender theory. What's needed are practical strategies and suggestions for the classroom. But as Becky Francis shows in Boys, Girls and Achievement, many books providing "tips for teachers" in this fraught area are likely to cause as many problems as they solve because they fail to address what she describes as "one of the main underlying causes of boys' lesser educational success: the perpetuation of a laddish gender culture among school boys".

The strength of this book is that it explores key theoretical issues in relation to gender and achievement, while remaining firmly rooted in the classroom. It is written in a highly accessible style, showing that academic rigour and theoretical subtlety need no jargon or convoluted sentences.

Boys, Girls and Achievement is based on classroom observation and pupil interviews in three London secondary schools. The interviews included questions about children's perceptions of their school experiences, of the relative behaviour and abilities of boys and girls, and of their views about former education minister Stephen Byers's well-publicised comments on boys' laddish behaviour. The book also draws on a wide range of relevant literature.

Becky Francis shows, convincingly, how pupils take up very different ways of behaving as part of their "identity work". She confirms that girls tend to use more "feminne" behaviours, such as chatting quietly, while boys tend to be more physical and to express their difference from girls through expressions of homophobia and misogyny and by flaunting their heterosexuality (for example, by talking about their sexual conquests).

At the same time, many girls and boys do not take up these stereotypical positions - girls may be loud and aggressive, while boys may be quiet and serious. But, importantly, Francis finds that "fitting in" in these gendered terms is highly rewarded in terms of popularity with pupils and teachers.

The book finishes with a chapter called "Teaching Strategies for the Future". Here, Becky Francis uses her own research and that of many others to show, for example, that some current strategies (for example the encouragement of competitive sport) are more likely to lead to an own goal than an improvement in the achievement of boys. Instead, she suggests schools need to take a long-term approach that helps all pupils reflect on and challenge the ways in which they construct gender. Combined with other forms of good teaching practice and school ethos, these, rather than panic-driven "what about the boys?" approaches are likely to have the most long-term benefits for all our pupils.

Boys, Girls and Achievement deserves to be widely bought and used in classrooms and teacher training.

Debbie Epstein Debbie Epstein is reader in education at the Institute of Education, the University of London, and editor of Failing Boys? Issues in Gender and Achievement (Open University Press)

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