Girls can get away with doing well at school if they are physically attractive and concerned with their appearance, while high-achieving boys are accepted when they do well at sport, according to new research.
And successful pupils of both sexes find it useful to befriend a more unruly, less-academic "fall guy" whose misbehaviour compensates for their own classroom attentiveness.
Academics from Roehampton and Birmingham universities studied Year 8 pupils from nine secondaries in southern England. They focused on 22 pupils who were both high-achieving academically and popular with their classmates.
They found that popular pupils of both sexes were unembarrassed by their academic success. They consistently worked hard, enthusiastically raising their hands during lessons.
Often, these pupils were singled out for public praise by their teachers. For example, teenager Jamie was congratulated by his teacher for doing his homework when "not so many people have been so conscientious".
"Such findings present a challenge to arguments that secondary-school pupils - particularly boys - are ashamed to have their academic achievement identified in front of peers," the researchers said.
But many of those interviewed countered such potentially damaging attention by being deliberately fashionable and appearance-conscious. They were also keen to conform to gender stereotypes.
So girls wore copious make-up and jewellery and straightened their hair while boys gelled theirs, wore their ties carelessly and carried sportswear-branded bags.
Academically successful girls also tended to develop stereotypically feminine interests such as fashion, celebrities and pop music. For example, one of the girls commented: "I want to change my name to Kennedy Sykes . Don't you think it sounds like a model?" Others ostentatiously applied make-up or nail polish during lessons.
"The apparent preoccupation with make-up and `superficial' interests allows girls to be positioned by boys and by teachers as vain and superficial," the researchers said. "The associated signs of `bimbo', `ditzy' and so on may work . to balance productions of high achievement."
Academic boys tended to be obviously physical during lessons, play- fighting and throwing things. Many were also good at sport, a talent that consolidated their status as alpha males.
The researchers said: "Being good at sport can provide an important cornerstone of authentic masculinity, which allows high-achieving popular boys to incorporate other, potentially `feminine' constructions . eg orientation to schoolwork, articulate communication."
Popular pupils were also careful to highlight the effortlessness of their achievement: unlike less-popular achievers, they did not look as though they were trying hard to do well. Instead, they made a point of lighthearted cheekiness during lessons.
They often cultivated friendships with disruptive classmates. So while Jamie correctly answered teachers' questions, his friend Joel would repeatedly sigh, "Who cares? Similarly, academic Albert regularly had his name on the merit board while his friend Aron was on the naughty list.
The researchers suggest that this "fall-guy phenomenon" allowed academic pupils to "draw kudos from their friends' disruptive and rebellious behaviour, but . not share the consequences of these actions".
In fact, popular, high-achieving pupils studiously avoided any excesses of behaviour, either good or bad.
"Their academic achievement is performed as being attained relatively effortlessly," the researchers concluded. "Likewise, their behaviours are not excessively disruptive, involving displays of good-humoured cheek and attitude, rather than overt resistance or confrontation."
- `The simultaneous production of educational achievement and popularity: how do some pupils accomplish it?' by Becky Francis, Christine Skelton and Barbara Read is published in the `British Educational Research Journal'.
On the bright side
- Academic success and classroom popularity are not mutually exclusive.
- Popular boys and girls do not mind their academic success being recognised publicly.
- Academic girls and boys retain their popularity by being good-looking or fashionable.
- Academic girls also cultivate an interest in "girly" subjects such as make-up and celebrities.
- Academic boys ensure their popularity by being good at sport.
- Both girls and boys cultivated less-successful, more disruptive "fall guy" friends.