I have a scare story that unsettles the boys in my classes: in the near future, young women will achieve the highest grades, the most sought-after university places and the best-paid and most rewarding careers.
Young men, meanwhile, will play subservient roles, and perhaps even become homemakers – cleaning the house, preparing meals and looking after the kids.
Not that there’s anything wrong with house husbandry but for teenage boys, it is not an attractive lifestyle. The intention of my scare story is to encourage boys to take their schoolwork more seriously and to compete more effectively with their female classmates.
There is real evidence that the scenario is already coming true. University faculties that were once male bastions – law, medicine and dentistry, for example – now have more female students than male ones. Not only that, but female students are also achieving better degrees.
No longer fettered by discriminatory laws and attitudes, girls are doing extremely well in the classroom while boys are seriously underachieving. In both primary and secondary school, girls outperform boys in reading tests and on average achieve higher exam grades.
The extent of the gender gap varies from school to school, and tends to be most pronounced in poorer areas with fewer positive male role models who have used academic success to secure rewarding careers. In disadvantaged areas, girls are much more likely than their brothers to go to university.
Boys’ attitudes to school and learning are undoubtedly influenced by negative peer group pressures and the idea of being “one of the lads” – drawing them to football, PlayStations and music, rather than reading, writing and arithmetic. By contrast, girls are increasingly forming friendship groups with higher aspirations and expectations, and with a clear desire to achieve the best exam results.
Complacency is also a factor; boys tend to overestimate their abilities, while girls typically underestimate theirs. Girls are more inclined to prepare and revise for exams while boys will leave things to the proverbial last minute. You can see this in the classroom with the coursework that now forms a substantial part of Highers and other exams: girls generally spend twice as long as most boys on these crucial assignments.
The challenge of closing education’s gender gap is not an easy one. It involves destroying the myth that working hard at school is bad for your “street cred” and that key subjects such as English are “girlie”.
One school uses quotes from a popular football manager about how being an effective learner enables him to be a better manager. Other schools are trying mentoring schemes to encourage boys to put more effort into their studies. And then there’s the scare story tactic – maybe that, too, will encourage boys to take their schoolwork more seriously.
John Greenlees is a secondary teacher in Scotland