If you're a boy, it's just not cool to work hard at school. As one Year 10 girl from an East Anglian secondary school told researchers: "There's one sentence that sums up just about every single boy in our school, and it's that they want to prove something to their friends. It's like, 'hey look at me, I'm Mr Wonderful!'" Research from Homerton College, Cambridge adds to evidence showing not only that girls have outstripped boys at GCSE but why.
With next week's GCSE results likely to follow recent patterns, showing girls doing better than boys in most subjects, the findings will interest schools nation-wide.
Focusing on one school, researchers Molly Warrington and Mike Younger talked to students, teachers and parents about study habits and attitudes, and conclude that peer pressure militates against boys' success. Their report says: "Staff felt that boys appeared more concerned with preserving an image of reluctant involvement or disengagement; for many boys, it was not acceptable for them to be seen to be interested or stimulated by academic work.
"There were quite sophisticated attempts to conceal interest or involvement, to preserve peer group status," the report says.
One male teacher said: "Girls can have a good social life and work; they're not stigmatised for working, whereas boys are."
The researchers conclude: "For many boys, their emerging masculinity placed them in direct conflict with the ethos and aspirations of the school, an antagonist against whom their own masculinity was frequently tested." A similar message came from academic research at Thirsk School in North Yorkshire (See The TES, July 14).
But this is not the whole picture. Boys felt they were not treated fairly by their teachers. While 70 per cent of girls felt that female teachers treated girls and boys equally, only 46 per cent of boys agreed. "Girls are treated a lot better, and get first choice of equipment and task; boys are blamed for everything," one said.
By contrast less than half of both boys and girls thought male teachers were fair. A Year 11 girl said: "Girls are treated more leniently by male teachers. The girls have a reputation of being well-behaved, so if they don't do their homework, they won't get told off as much."
A Year 11 boy said, "If we need help he'll come over and he'll explain quickly, then go away. And we'll get on with it, but with a girl, he'll be there like, 10 minutes, almost dictating it, giving more detailed notes than he's given us."
The research was carried out at the request of the headteacher, concerned that a significant minority of boys were apparently failing to fulfil their potential at GCSE, with girls outperforming boys in every subject during 1991 and 1992. Although the gender gap had narrowed over the four years from 1991-1994, it was still apparent, with girls continuing to gain 22 per cent more A*-C grades in English.
According to staff and students interviewed, boys' difficulties went beyond presenting an image. They said girls concentrated and planned better and worked harder. In addition, girls were more goal-oriented. Boys were more vague about what they wanted to do after GCSEs.
The researchers found that the performance of both boys and girls in English dipped in 1994, when the GCSE coursework component was cut from 100 per cent to 40 per cent.
The increase in coursework which came with the introduction of GCSEs is widely seen as having benefited girls. This study suggests that the coursework reduction has now had a negative impact, with the number of girls awarded A*-C grades dropping significantly in 1994 compared with the previous three years.