How girls turn their backs on education

27th June 2003 at 01:00
GIRLS AND EXCLUSION: rethinking the agenda. By Audrey Osler and Kerry Vincent. RoutledgeFalmer pound;70 hbk, pound;19.99 pbk

There is more to exclusion than bad behaviour, writes Irene Dalton

As head of a school that is serious about educational inclusion, I found this book relevant and to the point, addressing many of the issues we face daily. Audrey Osler and Kerry Vincent challenge the perception that because boys are "underperforming" in public examinations, girls are "doing well" at school, pointing out that the gender gap in achievement is far smaller than gaps associated with ethnic origin and social class. Ironically, too, girls' achievements are seen in a negative context.

Boys' underachievement has become the focus of government and government-driven school improvement strategies, reinforced by inspection processes and league table emphases, even though girls still do less well in career options, whatever their academic achievement. Osler and Vincent redefine exclusion, showing that while girls are less likely to be formally excluded, they have ways of excluding themselves from educational opportunity. Their coping strategies mean they have fewer direct confrontations with teachers; and their bullying is subtler, less noticeable, but just as devastating in its consequences, striking at the heart of what is most important to girls - friendships and status.

Professionals dealing with "bad girls" are less tolerant of their "extreme" behaviour than that of "bad boys"; the stereotype of what is expected of boys, however unacceptable, dominates the thinking. Girls are more subject to criticism about their appearance and sexual activities than boys - by professionals as well as peers. Girls interviewed for the book regard boys' confrontational behaviour as stupid. They prefer saying sorry, or crying - avoiding the disciplinary consequences, including permanent exclusion, that boys often invite.

Most support goes to boys - more attention from senior staff, more placements in pupils referral units and school support units and, out of school, courses in placements more geared to boys' interests. Although the girls interviewed value education as the only route to "a good job", they describe a variety of strategies to get out of school - internal truancy, excuses about illness, writing their own notes, self harm, and "just staying in bed" to avoid going to a school from which they feel alienated.

Some are open in saying that senior staff in schools tell them to stay away as they aren't doing any good by coming.

Kerry and Osler believe the Government's tendency to judge schools by academic success, rather than success in helping young people cope with education, works against inclusion. Some girls resent the fact that the school up the road, praised for its academic success, ejects "bad" pupils who end up at their school. They are full of praise for their own school, which makes serious attempts to "talk things through".

Unsurprisingly, girls prefer strict teachers who expect high standards of them. Teachers who do not make them work are dismissed as failing to care about them. Girls in bottom sets feel labelled, with little expected of them. My own experience is that bottom sets contain more boys than girls and that girls in them tend, understandably, to passivity or to attempts to "outlad the lads".

Many girls express a need for someone to confide in - a school nurse or counsellor. They also want school councils to talk about issues that concern them. Despite wanting a range of people to talk to, they are reluctant to involve their parents - because "they would go up to school" and make things worse. There is a message here for senior staff. Many girls say they would talk to individuals, but are chary of having their problems brought to the attention of "the school", meaning the system.

What can schools do? Find out why girls exclude themselves; have more girl-friendly attitudes in social areas or games; increase girls' access to people with whom to share problems. Schools, in fact, need to look for the problems girls experience, rather than continuing to believe there are no problems because girls keep quiet and do not force problems into the open by violence or unacceptable confrontation. If girls (and Osler and Vincent indicate that many are "hidden" excluders) simply accept that their interests are not being addressed by schools, and exclude themselves so quietly and hopelessly, something is amiss.

Irene Dalton is head of Wombwell high school, Barnsley

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