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?

When I first started teaching in the mid 1970s we were more concerned about the girls.

Not only were girls doing badly at school but they also went on to earn far less than men in the workplace. Today boys may fall behind at school, but as adults still earn more than women.

When I first came to England, from Ireland in the late 1960s, I was delighted to attend a mixed school after my previous all-girls convent school. However, I did notice the reluctance of girls in my class to answer questions or get themselves noticed.

I soon found out why. When I stood up to answer a question I was immediately subjected to comments about the size of my boobs or bum. It was the same for the other girls and many found it easier not to get involved.

They just let the boys get on with it.

I soon learned that 13-year-old boys were annoyingly sex-obsessed. In class, I took on some of the worst behaviour of the boys in order to get myself taken seriously. I was not afraid to ask when I did not understand and refused to let the teacher move on when I did not.

As a teacher myself, I first became aware of the growing gap between boys'

and girls' achievement while on secondment in 1984. I spent a lot of time talking to colleagues about this problem. We read around the subject and did lots of research. But there was no obvious answer.

As soon as I returned to the classroom, I agreed to be videoed teaching a mixed class. The aim was to try to work out where we were going wrong.

Watching yourself on film is always painful but to watch the edited video with my colleagues as part of training was excruciating. But it was clear that the majority of my interactions were with boys. They were the ones who demanded attention, who could not sit still and needed constant encouragement and cajoling. The girls were left largely to their own devices.

In one sense, not a lot has changed. Boys still crave attention and girls still tend to shun the limelight. The achievement gap only emerged with the change in the examination system in the 1980s. New GCSE and A-levels became more heavily weighted on coursework and modular assessment.

Traditionally, boys were better at cramming and better at memorising facts and figures. Today, girls tend to be more organised and better able to plan and pace their work output.

GCSE has undoubtedly enabled them to do better. But the strides we've made in girls' achievement have not been at the expense of boys. The teachers in my school are far better in the classroom than ever I was. They have a range of skills and techniques, which they employ to engage the pupils.

Good teachers today look at their class as individuals. Their lessons include a variety of activities and resources that appeal to both boys and girls. They plan lessons thoroughly to ensure that everybody is included.

All schools analyse the progress of different gender, ethnic and social groups. However, it would be a mistake to re-design the curriculum or the way we assess to suit one particular group.

The introduction of coursework and modular assessment, which encourage individual research and reward effort, are designed to identify qualities which are vital in the new knowledge economy.

Instead of worrying that these skills are too girl-friendly, or alienate boys, we need to give all our pupils the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the modern world.

We might do better by offering a more appropriate vocational education to motivate and help not just boys who underachieve, but also white working-class girls, who are also losing out.

The present system, which has enabled girls to make great strides in a short period of time, can also help boys to achieve the qualifications and skills needed in the 21st century, both as future citizens and employees.

Of course I support any strategy that helps boys, or any under-achieving.

group. But I don't think we should panic. Boys will soon be out-earning the girls in the workplace. Perhaps that is the issue we should worry about?

Kenny Frederick is headteacher at George Green community school in Tower Hamlets, London

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