Boys, eh? What can you do?

Boys, eh? What can you do?

Back in February 2020 there was a parliamentary debate on ‘Education and Attainment of White Working-Class Boys’. Part of the expert evidence stated that ‘We know that on average boys consistently underperform against girls, and white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds underperform against boys of all other races and ethnicities.’ The issues around boys’ underperformance have rattled around in schools for years and, evidently, still persist.

Evidence shows that the differences between boys and girls can emerge at birth. According to some research, sex-related genes or hormones may account for the different ways the brains of boys and girls react to human speech. Overall, more boys than girls are late talkers, and boys may use more limited vocabularies. Girls tend to be better at reading non-verbal signs, like tone of voice and expression, making them better communicators early on because they can connect feelings and words faster.

Boys’ gross motor skills tend to develop slightly faster (look at any outdoor area in EYFS!), while girls’ fine motor skills tend to improve first (again, look at who is holding a pencil, writing and drawing in most EYFS settings). For this reason, girls may show an interest in writing and art before boys.

However, the issues can be exacerbated by staff expectations. There was some interesting research by Debra Myhill at the University of Exeter back in 2004 entitled ‘’Troublesome boys’ and ‘compliant girls’: Gender identity and perceptions of achievement and underachievement’. One of the key findings is that teachers can unconsciously expect boys to be low achievers, hard to motivate, and likely to cause problems rather than work, whilst girls are perceived as being high achievers who are keen to engage and hardworking. This, despite teachers involved in the research stating they had high expectations of all children, did not have pre-conceptions and treated all pupils the same. The gender biases that emerged were mainly subconscious. It’s available online and well worth a read, especially the quotes that teachers ascribed to ‘typical’ boys and ‘typical’ girls.

It’s situations like when a group of children are talking with each other while working independently in a lesson. Is there an assumption that if the group of children are girls then they must be discussing the work and collaborating, but if the group is made up of boys then they must be off-task and probably planning a mini riot or some such heinous activity?

There’s a considerable amount of research exploring this, although some findings are contradictory. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering what we do in schools to address any issues of boys’ underperformance. Strategies such as ‘make it link with football’ seem to ignore the fact that not every boy likes football. And what kind of stereotyping is this promoting about the girls? Football is not for them, then? Another issue is when history units focus are adapted to focus on the gory stuff – war, torture and fighting in general – to get the boys interested, apparently. Hardly helping to challenge issues of toxic masculinity, is it, if this is seen as the preserve of boys and used to focus their attention?

Of course, there are many, many schools where boys’ outcomes are strong, any kind of bias, unconscious or otherwise, is challenged, and best practices are shared effectively.

But it’s still worth being mindful of the language that we use and the resources that we provide for the pupils. Only last year, I was in a school where I overheard an adult say, “Right, I need some big, strong boys to help me move this table.’ To a class of Y1 pupils.

There has been a lot of helpful research into effective practice to help engage boys and raise outcomes, as well as research into adults’ attitudes and unconscious bias.

I would recommend ‘Boys Don’t Try’ by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts as a really thought-provoking book and the research paper ‘Nine Contradictory Observations About Girls’ and Boys’ Upbringing and Education’ by Määttä and Uusiautti, University of Lapland 2020.

I’ll be exploring these issues and providing examples of best practice in the forthcoming Focus Education course ‘Improving Outcomes for Boys: What can we learn from the research and how can this be implemented effectively?’ on 29th April (view here) and then available as a CPD video afterwards (view here).

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