Genes don't make the boy;Opinion

25th June 1999 at 01:00
David Nicholson claims that nurture, not nature is to blame for male failure in the classroom

IT REALLY does not seem so many years ago since we were all concerned about girls' attainment levels in school.

How were we to stop boys dominating classrooms and, sometimes literally, pushing the girls into the background? And what about those studies which indicated that a disproportionate amount of the teacher's time was taken up in responding to the boys' insistent demands for attention, leaving the girls to salvage what they might from what remained?

Some parents with the means to do so responded to such concerns by ensuring that their daughters attended girls-only schools and The TESS on occasion carried reports about the successes gained by numbers of these girls, freed from the distractions and diversions caused by their male peers.

But for the most part the girls had to make do with a continuing coexistence and now it is increasingly apparent that even working within that context it is the girls who are setting the standards. Why should this be? For, truth to tell, it is a context which continues to be boy-dominated in the sense that teacher time is still diverted from the business of teaching, just as it was 20 years ago.

It has become fashionable to refer to research on the brain to explain the comparatively poor performance of the boys. There are genetic differences between the sexes, we are told, which predispose girls to do better within classrooms where teaching is generally sequential and where progress is founded on language skills. The need is, therefore, to find ways to acknowledge the boys' distinctive genetic make-up by structuring learning in ways which "tune in" to their predispositions while ensuring that the girls' progress is not compromised.

All of this seems reasonable enough but I remain puzzled. The genetic make-up of the male and female brain has, presumably, been constant during the short time which has seen boys relegated from pace-setters to "also-rans".

Nor am I aware of any radical revolution in teaching styles that has led the teachers in our schools to adopt approaches better adapted to the linear, sequential, language-based learning styles of girls. The late 1970s and early 1980s did bring the place of language in learning into the foreground but the 1990s teacher, preoccupied with Higher Still, 5-14, "How Good is Our School" and other more immediately pressing reports, is likely to be largely ignorant of "A Language For Life".

The not so simple fact is that only a few years ago boys were outperforming girls and in the span of a single teaching career this position has been reversed, even though today girls still struggle to gain a fair share of the teacher's time in class.

Wise teachers have always varied the structure and pacing of lessons to take account of the perceived abilities of their pupils and this will not change. They will listen to the experts who call for learning through pupil to pupil discussion and to inspectors who say that more direct teaching is the answer. Then they will make their own judgments. These will be focused on particular pupils and particular classes and they will recognise that important as the gains they might make will be, they will be gains at the margins.

A reorganisation of teaching and learning to accommodate a new understanding of genetic differences is not going to reverse the current pattern of female dominance. This can be asserted confidently because it has the backing of other widely accepted research, that which confirms the major factor in pupil success at school is linked to home background. And in the home background of our pupils can be seen an accelerating pattern out of which girls' success in school has grown.

The 20th century has been the century of female emancipation. Political, economic, medical and social factors have combined through succeeding generations to release a sense of self-belief in young women which is without precedent. And there is no reason to doubt that, as things stand, the girls in today's primary schools will confidently expect to exceed the achievements of their mothers, as they themselves did with their own mothers.

Meanwhile, the boys have as role models fathers who have lost their historical economic domination of the family circle as they have lost their place within the wider economy. Today's schoolboy, like his father, may well be seeking immediate gratification less as a result of genetic factors than social ones, a continuing round of distractions to escape from unpalatable realities they would prefer not to address.

These are not issues to be resolved by simple experiments in social engineering, a tinkering with the mix of boys and girls in classes. They should be addressed in school but in ways which compel the boys to confront the stereotypes of male behaviour and reject them as inappropriate and inadequate for the 21st century.

Yet this alone will not be enough: there are this century too many instances of our schools having impossible social issues forced on them with inevitable failure ensuing, for them willingly to embrace yet one more. Sadly there is scant sign of any political will to engage with the issues on a larger national stage which might encourage and sustain in-school work.

"Men behaving badly" are found amusing and the "Gazza" figure continues to be offered as an icon and willingly identified with by large numbers of men and boys. Meantime the girls make the most of their opportunities and extend their attainments.

With the connivance and, often, the active encouragement of parents, "boys will be boys", fooling themselves that they could be up there with the girls if they chose and that they will conjure up the results when it matters. That the evidence of exam results year on year says otherwise is just another inconvenient slice of reality that applies to someone else, not them.

David Nicholson is a former Glasgow secondary headteacher.

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