Perils of ignoring our lost boys

28th June 1996 at 01:00
There is no room for complacency over the plight of the substantial minority of male pupils who are disaffected and underachieving, says Alan Evans

For 10 years now boys have been slipping further behind girls in terms of their achievements at secondary school. In 199495 girls gaining five or more GCSE A-C grades outnumbered boys by 9 per cent.

According to a report prepared for the Equal Opportunities Commission1, boys' performance in GCSE is such that they have fallen behind in English, humanities, arts, modern languages and technology; whereas girls, who traditionally have trailed boys in mathematics and science, have almost caught up in both these core subjects.

During 1985-94 the performance of both boys and girls has improved, but boys have improved at a much slower rate than girls. In some schools the extent of boys' under-performance has become so serious that twice as many girls are getting five GCSE grades A-C. Moreover, in single-sex schools girls have realised higher overall grades than boys in single-sex schools, irrespective of type of school. In areas where the schools serve socially and economically deprived communities the relative superior performance of girls is even more marked and the difference is often as high as 15 to 20 per cent.

Surveys and national curriculum assessments (l991 and 1992) show that by the age of seven girls perform better than boys in reading, writing and spelling. The publication in January 1996 of the latest results of key stage tests at 7, 11 and 14 provides further evidence of the underachievement of boys in primary schools and in the early secondary years. Seven-year-old girls outperformed boys in English.

The degree of disparity increased at 11 and 14. In mathematics a difference existed but was not as marked as in English. The widening of the gap in the performance of boys and girls in English is of serious concern in the light of research which suggests that the most important indicator of success in mathematics and science at GCSE is the level of a pupil's literacy at 11.

One of the authors of the EOC report was recently quoted as saying that the findings of the report should not fill us with gloom but rather that we should celebrate the success story of girls.

Of course we should be delighted about the achievement of girls and the contribution which equal opportunity policies and strategies have made to their success.

But that misses the point that the chronic underachievement of boys is a cause of profound concern. It is to be welcomed that both Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, and Roy James, his counterpart in Wales, chose to highlight this concern in their respective annual reports earlier this year.

In order to obtain a fuller picture than that offered by the commission's valuable report, consideration should be given to the survey carried out at the University of Keele2 of attitudes and behaviour of 30,000 students in the compulsory secondary school age group.

This research shows that: * The motivation of boys falls from Year 8 onwards.

* By Years 10 and 11 some 40 per cent of pupils belong to three school groups known as the disappointed, the disaffected and the disappeared, and schools have little or nothing to contribute to the development of these pupils' self-esteem and self-respect. These three groups are comprised predominantly of boys.

* It is not "cool" for boys to work at their studies and, even if they do, they hide the fact.

* Boys are "out" four nights a week and girls are out one night a week.

* Boys do their homework in the minimum of time and girls spend as much time on it as the task requires.

* Boys do not go back over assignments which were not satisfactorily accomplished whereas girls endeavour to do so.

The overall impression arising from the Keele study is that from the age of 11 years upwards the girls have a more positive attitude to school work and a better image of themselves as young learners. In short girls are good students and a substantial minority of boys are not.

The Equal Opportunities Commission report displays unwarranted complacency when it asserts in its concluding remarks that male underachievement tends to disappear after 16, when many young men reassert their advantage over young women at A-level, in vocational qualifications, in higher education and in the labour market. This is a relatively small selective group whose achievement does not reverse the disturbing fact that by the age of 16 up to 40 per cent of boys are "lost" to education.

For the disappointed, school is to be endured with the minimum of aggravation for the sake of peer friendship, identity and a congenial home life; for the disaffected, it provides a theatre for their unfriendly energies; and for the disappeared, school is no longer an institution of any significance.

There are cultural, structural and pedagogic issues of considerable significance which impinge upon and relate to the serious underachievement of boys. Multi-layered strategies and policies to combat the underachievement of boys need to be formulated and pursued within schools and the communities which they serve. The implementation of such policies and strategies will require imagination, commitment and resources, but that implementation should not come at the expense of girls who have for decades themselves suffered from lack of opportunity and from both direct and indirect discrimination.

This serious and debilitating state of affairs will not be self-correcting. Unless major priority is given to combating the underachievement of boys, the new millennium will herald a bleak future for hundreds of thousands of young men because of they are unable to secure employment, because they lack qualifications and, equally serious, because they lack the confidence and application to take advantage of post-school training and educational opportunities.

The prospect of up to half the young men between the ages of 18 and 30, who live in urban areas in Britain, being unemployed, on probation or in jail is one which no civilised society should contemplate. Yet unless the Government, policy makers and the teaching profession take action as a matter of urgency, that prospect inevitably awaits us.

Alan Evans is a research consultant to the School of Education, University of Wales, Cardiff.

1Educational reforms and gender equality in schools by Madeline Arnot, Miriam David and Gaby Weiner - Research Discussion Series No.17 (1996).

2Young People and their Attitudes to School, University of Keele (1994)

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