Should we worry about boys?

20th August 2004 at 01:00
The gender gap in exam results is once again in the spotlight - should we be panicking so much about it?

We should worry first about the way this debate is framed. Talk of "boys falling behind" sets girls against boys - and encourages knee-jerk, sexist responses.

We won't get out of this by claiming to treat children as 'individuals', because we can't. Gender is the first thing we notice about a person and we can't interact with someone until we know if they are a man or woman.

Once gender is established, we treat individuals differently. Teachers, like the rest of society, see boys and girls, and stereotype, interpret and make recommendations on the basis of gendered expectations. Good intentions don't get us far in changing this, and even equal opportunities training only begins to counter stereotyping.

In any event, such training is no longer a required part of initial teacher training, nor is it a priority in training for heads and serving teachers.

The educational system as a whole is implicitly based around boys' needs and men's employment. Policies may now avoid using the generic 'he' and include examples of girls doing non-traditional jobs, but the benefits girls have derived from the national curriculum were not intended at its introduction, nor has there been any consideration of the consequences for girls of re-introducing vocational choices at 14 in the draft Tomlinson Report.

Gender isn't something just brought into schools and universities.

Education actively recreates sex differences, and "gender-neutral" policies confirm the status quo - the secondary position of women. If we are not actively opposing gender inequality in education, we reproduce it. We may not mean to, but we do.

We thus do need to worry at how boys' performance is being compared to girls'. Despite that fact that educators are supposed to regard gender as unimportant, we are back to using it as a disciplinary tool: "you boys had better work harder or you will lose to the girls".

We must contest this approach. Equally, we must challenge the sloppy idea that all boys are falling behind all girls. This means changing the format of the statistics.

Overall standards are improving and we need to be precise: which groups of boys are falling behind, in which subjects and at which ages? And which groups of girls are doing poorly? This will not make such a good media story.

A child's gender - and race and class - does influence educational performance and we are right to be concerned when boys fall behind. Boys have problems in school as elsewhere in establishing relationships and evolving a satisfactory form of masculinity, which can hinder their progress.

They are likely to suffer harassment and sometimes serious physical bullying, from other boys. They are the social group most likely to commit suicide.

Scoring badly in tests and exams does not help an already rocky sense of self-worth; and since boys are encouraged to be competitive, when they feel they can't win, they will drop out and argue they are not interested. The things they can't do are decreed "not worth doing" - which leads on to men who are not only poor readers without GCSEs, but are also actively anti-intellectual.

This is bad for "nerdy" or caring boys, who do want to apply themselves and bad for the world.

Academic qualifications do matter, even if they matter less in the labour market for boys than for girls.

Yet "targeting" boys, as is being suggested, can often be counter-productive. The more their failings are highlighted, the more they will resist.

Moreover, giving resources to boys just because they are male is illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act and (here I fully agree with Kenny Frederick, right) unfair. It means those girls who do need help - and there are problems more common to girls than to boys, such as over-conformity, sexualization, self-harming, and low occupational horizons - are being over-looked. So yes, we should worry about boys, but we should also worry about girls.

Turning a blind eye to the needs of either gender is wrong. Right now boys need all the help they can get.

Diana Leonard is professor of sociology of education and gender at London's university's Institute of Education

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