Girls must not be held back by schemes to prevent boys' performing badly, Miriam David and Gaby Weiner argue
Oh boy, do we welcome Ted Wragg's piece "Oh boy" from his TESGreenwich lecture, since it opens up a debate that is long overdue. It was particularly timely for one group of researchers, as it appeared while we were attending the sixth and final session of a year-longEconomic Social Research Council-funded series called Gender and Education - are boys under-achieving?
These seminars have drawn together about 50 key researchers from across the UK and abroad doing work on what it means to be male or female. Most of the group are feminists working in education but some men are also involved. For our last meeting we had agreed to discuss an agenda for future research and how to disseminate the findings from the previous five seminars about boys' and girls' educational performances and relative standards.
Ted Wragg's argument and 10-point plan was useful for our meeting but we found it controversial. He makes a number of important points which confirm the evidence that we, among others, have now accumulated. It shows that girls' examination performances have improved relatively faster than boys, that the gender gap has been reversed at GCSE and that there are educational developmental differences between boys and girls.
Unlike Professor Wragg, however, we have not found an outright gap between boys' and girls' results at A-level. His solutions to the problem of boys' underachievement do not take account of the complexity of the issues involved. Our international group, now named Demeter after the Greek goddess of fruitfulness and the changing seasons, believes that the ways forward are more complex than he implies.
We would like to dispute some of the ways in which Ted Wragg recommends future action since he seems to focus on boys, which may result in solutions being at the expense of girls. The TES presentation of his article - cryptically entitled "Chained males - How boys are held back" provides us with very old-fashioned imagery of identical white boys in what might be traditionally taken to be preparatory school uniforms, with short trousers, short hair cuts and short ties.
Ted Wragg's article invites this kind of imagery, since he also addresses the issues of boys' underachievement apparently without examining differences between boys on the basis of social class, race or ethnicity. At one point he suggests that one cause of the problem may be differential brain activity between boys and girls. But this is over-simplistic and it does not invite any social or educational answer.
He also calls the underachievement of boys "one of the biggest challenges facing society and schools" and although he claims that addressing it should not be at girls' expense he gives us no clue as to how we can achieve this. Again by implication girls do not need any kind of special attention.
If we look at his 10-point plan, all his recommendations are addressed only to boys' education.The first point - start early - suggests that boys should be encouraged to attend nurseries both to start language activities and learn to behave well, followed by help given by father at home so that language is not seen as a purely female activity.
There is an enormous amount of evidence that girls learn to speak earlier than boys and that much of this is acquired through talk with their mothers. However, nurseries are almost entirely staffed by women, so that attending nurseries may not do the trick of rectifying the situation. It may, without other kinds of intervention, confirm the problem.
However, Professor Wragg's suggestion that fathers should help more at home with reading and writing may indeed help the language development of boys. In a recently-completed Economic and Social Research Council study, across private and state school families in London, we found that fathers rarely helped at home with literacy activities, leaving it all to mothers, who were nearly always involved.
Fathers were, however, more likely to help with computer games and maths activities. This means that we would not want fully to endorse Wragg's seventh point - use new technology. It is indeed the case that many young boys like using new technology, but it has also been shown that they are given preferential treatment over girls, both at school and at home. Fathers' involvement in these various educational activities needs to be carefully monitored so that they are not seen to be passing on to their sons, rather than their daughters, the traditional male skills with tools and machinery. We suggest that mothers and women teachers need to be involved here in new technologies, and offer it to girls on a par with boys.
Ted Wragg's third plea is for early intervention at school with reading and he suggests that the Reading Recovery programme is very successful with six-year-old boys. Again, this may indeed be useful and important but not all boys are slower than all girls and the programme is known to be extremely expensive. Is he suggesting that boys with reading difficulties should be given preferential treatment over girls? Where will the resources come from?
The fifth point is addressed to improving boys' behaviour in class. We are sure that most primary school teachers would dearly like to be offered advice on how to solve the problem of boys' attention-seeking behaviour. One of the earliest findings of the new research on gender and education is that boys behaving badly meet with increased attention from teachers, reinforcing unequal treatment for girls. Many studies have shown just how much effort most teachers make to interest the boys in order to get them to behave.
Thus addressing Professor Wragg's point of appealing to boys' interests - humour, adventure and sport - would further serve to emphasise these interests which are already well catered for, whether boys are disruptive or not.
The second half of his plan is more clearly addressed to educational solutions, most of which we have no quarrel with - except that they should involve girls as well as boys.
His sixth point is to raise teacher awareness, claiming that it was mainly through this mechanism that underachievement amongst girls was rectified. Our evidence from the Equal Opportunities Commission study Educational Reforms and Gender Equality in Schools (1996) does not point so simply to teacher awareness as the reason for the changing pattern of girls' achievements. Indeed, we suggest that girls' improved performance is only partly to do with policy and practice changes.
It may equally be to do with changing patterns of examinations - so that comparisons over time are not easy to sustain. Some girls always did well in examinations but we did not then have the easy or ready means to collect and demonstrate their successes. Nor were they readily allowed to achieve: the 11-plus was weighted in favour of boys. However, it is certainly the case now that girls are entered for more examinations than in the past and do well in them.
We do agree with Ted Wragg about the necessity of involving teachers in these issues. We, too, believe that teacher education is the key to raising educational standards generally and over issues of gender in particular. Awareness of the importance of gender in education and sensitivity to such matters should be part of new Labour's teacher training 10-point plan.
Our various researches show that one of the main reasons for girls' moving forward, especially in education, is to do with changing conceptions of femininity and female activities in education, the labour market and the wider society. By contrast, school-based concepts of masculinity seem more stuck in older, traditional ways, which, like Ted Wragg's article, do not attend to differences and complexities of living and working at the end of the twentieth century.
Giving attention to changing notions of boys' interests and masculinity would go a long way to addressing patterns of underachievement and make teachers, schools and society more sensitive to the ways in which gender matters.
Miriam David is professor of social sciences and Gaby Weiner is professor of education at South Bank University