Can boys do better?

Mark Hewlett considers the problem of boys being outperformed academically and what can be done to address the issue.

As someone said, `Are boys underachieving or have we just got to face the awful truth that they`re not as bright as girls?` Some might cling to the notion that boys are bright enough to realise that school is a bit of a waste of time and that they`ll win through when the real game (of life and work) starts in earnest. But that notion is wearing thinner by the year. Leaving examination scores aside, are differences real or are we jumping to superficial stereotypical conclusions?

Substantial research undertaken amongst senior staff in schools throughout Wales set out to find out how teachers perceived differences between boys and girls. Their views, and there seems to be no reason to think that Welsh teachers` perceptions are any different from English teachers` were that:

Girls mature earlierapproach their work more seriouslyco-operate more readilyare more ready to pleaseare more dutifulquestion lesshave greater appreciation of others` needs and situationIn contrast boysare expected to be less sensitive than girls and behave accordingly; are suspicious of finer feelings, and of complexity of language; are disadvantaged by emphasis upon course work;
are less reliable, less methodical and less consistent than girls; are more affected by bullying than girls; causing lack of confidence and low self-esteem and leading to underachievement; are more questioning than girls, more sceptical, less inclined to be co-operative; are more susceptible to peer group pressures than are girls; and do not wish to appear to be co-operative and studious; read less than girls; are more active physically; go out more.

The research revealed the opinion that boys were significantly disadvantaged by the preponderance of written work and failure to credit oral work in which they were perceived to be better.Boys became demotivated by the cumulative effects of criticism, `being shouted at`, and failure to succeed and that this had a downward spiralling effect. Boys (perhaps as a result of this) held school in low esteem, felt they had better things to do than homework, rejected subjects they were compelled to take and were inclined to reject school and its values which, in some cases, turned into disaffection. Of the 102 schools surveyed seventy-six expressed concern about boys; only six said they thought boys were doing as well as if not better than girls.

Facing the factsUK research data (from educational social service and health services sources) reveal that:

- in terms of examination performance girls are outperforming boys now at every level in virtually every subject;
- males exhibit inferior innate language skills;
- male inferior achievement has been recorded since the 1940s when quotas had to be introduced relating to the eleven plus to stop grammar schools filling up with girls;
- boys are more antisocial, violent and given to criminal activity; over seventy
-five percent of offences by eleven to seventeen year olds are committed by boys;
- ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) is four times as common among boys as girls;
- compared with girls boys are five times more likely to commit suicide, four times more likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, nine times more likely to be sleeping rough, and will die earlier.

The facts make the picture look even bleaker, and as we become increasingly aware of the change and shifts in the nature of employment there is real concern because the long tail of male underachievement has been masked by availability of unskilled manual labour now arguably disappearing. what does research into the causes of male/female differences tell us? Is there hope and prospect of improvement here? There are two main sets of research fields which can illuminate the question: Physiological and Sociological/Psychological.

Physiological factorshigher testosterone levels in males cause:greater levels of physical aggression, lower sustained concentration levels, a greater need for males to assert themselves and be dominant (and suffer greater frustration if they don`t succeed)males have lower levels of development in those areas of the brain which deal with linguistic intelligences which are closely related to the ability to reflect and engage in higher order intellectual analysis (on a personal level I have some doubt here).males have greater spatial awareness.`Right brain/left brain: he`s better at reversing a car; she`s better at telling someone how to do it`, Hannan, Gmales are more impulsive, speculative and experimental (can be a plus, can be a liability)male foetuses have fewer links between the two halves of the cortex (right and left brain) so in the crucial area of language - possibly other areas - girls are better able to use the power of the whole brain. `Girl talk: it`s all in the genes`, Guardian.

Cultural and societal factors (interacting with physiological factors) School subjects generally favour those with linguistic skills (girls)
- hence the charge of examination courses being girl-friendly.Schools as institutions are better suited to female personality traits
- organisations work better with people who are reflective, tolerant, passive, accepting of frustration, unlikely to challenge aggressively and irrationally.Boys define themselves by what they can do rather than what they understand and doing is increasingly less important than understanding in modern and future society.) `School is not cool`: the laddish culture (aggression; challenge; impulsiveness) is antipathetic to (passive, conformist) school culture.Gender stereotyping in infancy/childhood has an insidiously negative effect; boys motivated to be tough/strong/dominant/ adventurous find themselves in an environment where such qualities are unwanted.

What can we take out of all this which is positive?

1. Boys` underperformance in examinations and assessments in the formal routine of an alien environment using a language which does not come naturally to them places them inevitably at a disadvantage1.
2. It is evident that in certain subjects - maths, science and those requiring spatial awareness, manual dexterity and physical power - boys equal or outperform girls.
3. Boys are seen to be more questioning and inquisitive.
4. In the circumstances of the real world (outside the environment of school) boys perform well. Indeed their inherited innate testeronal drive to succeed, persevere and take risks against the odds are just the characteristics needed for success and survival in the new unknown and challenging circumstances of a changing world. And let us not forget that males have contributed significantly to the creative, cultural environment of the arts: music, dance and the visual arts. Perhaps the problem is of our own making.

Perhaps we should - and not before time - rethink the whole process of learning in terms of what is really needed in society; then perhaps, as a result of their common sense, and determination to succeed boys will come into their own. (Who needs French? Who needs geography, history, literature, quadratic and simultaneous equations? What`s the point - is it that girls are too uncritical, too biddable to question the status quo?) Can we change schools? Can we take education out of school?

Improving boys` performance in schoolsLet us assume that some benefit might be derived from boys performing better in school, in the narrow sense of getting good examination and test results.The following checklist will, I hope, be helpful, though I know that most of you will have addressed the issues already. If you choose to pursue the challenge, it may be worth you asterisking your top ten actions and set out to refocus on them from the start of next term.


1. Identify any things that boys are doing as well as or better than girls, especially in your school.
2. Give every boy a mentor and/or study buddy.


3. Set clear behavioural limits operated consistently throughout the school.
4. Use boys as helpers and ambassadors: give them adult roles.
Classroom Management and Teaching Style
5. Make sure lessons are very carefully structured.
6. Set short term targets so it is clear exactly what has to be done to succeed.
7. Set open/research questions/essays but provide a semi-structured work frame and high minimum requirements.
8. Give plenty of positive feedback, advice and encouragement; mark work carefully and give specific comments about how to improve (of practical value and constitutes a private, one-to-one conversation). Formative assessment is the key.
9. Promote self-esteem; encourage boys: they need more encouragement.
10. Use work sheets that are clear, `sharp`, stimulating, intriguing, and witty/amusing.
11. Make the curriculum more challenging and realistic, less stodgy, encourage speculation and risk.
12. Make lessons as varied and active as possible: movement/ drama/role play/speaking/field work/experiment.
13. Adopt a wide variety of teaching/learning styles, especially those which are kinaesthetic, spatial, conceptual.
14. Provide individual work using ICT.
15. Make sure the library is stocked with boy-friendly reading material.
16. Select male-oriented context and illustration; reading does not just mean fiction; it includes instruction manuals, magazines, football programmes.
17. Use games, eg Scrabble, including the computerised version.

Classroom Organisation

18. Boy-girl pairing.
19. Single sex classes, especially top sets; in Year 9 upwards ensuring equal numbers of boys and girls in top sets.

Role Modelling

20. Invite a continuing rota of male authors, male artists in residence, male dancers, local sportspeople - to assemblies and classes.

Working with Home and Community

21. Work actively with clubs and community.
22. Above all work with home, especially dads.

For further advice contact:Mark Hewlett, CSCS, University of Leicester, Moulton College, Moulton, Northampton, NN3 7RR; tel: 01604 492337; fax: 01604 492524; e-mail: