German Boys: Problem Children?

There's been a lot of talk recently about boys in Germany. Debates about the equality of girls and women have long ignored the fact that it is also not easy for boys in Germany to find their place in society. Particularly in school, boys do less well than girls, though education experts are unable to agree on why.

The figures speak for themselves: as far as their school careers are concerned, boys are at a disadvantage as compared to girls. Gender differences are evident even at the school entry stage: over 60 percent of children whose entry into school is postponed for a year are boys, and boys also have to repeat a year more often than their female classmates. As a result, and according to estimates based on the findings of the PISA study (of school performance in Germany), approximately 35 percent of boys in year nine (14 to 15-year-olds) are "a year or more behind", while the figure for girls is just 24 percent.

The situation for boys as regards graduation from school, however, is particularly serious. Male pupils are underrepresented at Gymnasium level (the German equivalent of the grammar school in the UK), but overrepresented at Hauptschulen (secondary modern school). According to the 2006 Education Report commissioned by the Conference of Education Ministers and the Federal Ministry of Education, 32 percent of girls left school in 2004 with the qualifications needed to enter university, yet only 24 percent of all boys passed their Abitur (equivalent to A levels in the UK). 34 percent of male pupils, but only 26 percent of female pupils, graduated from a Hauptschule. It is also boys who are most likely to leave the Hauptschule without any qualifications: in 2004, 10 percent of boys were in this group, while the figure for girls was six percent.

The differences between the genders can also be observed in pupils from immigrant families. The PISA study had already highlighted that this group is particularly disadvantaged, and the latest Education Report confirms this assessment. According to the report, boys once again achieved noticeably poorer results than girls. "However, since young people from immigrant families perform less well in overall terms, the achievements of boys in this group are particularly worrying", says Petra Stanat from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. In figures, this means, for example, that twice as many non-German pupils leave school without any qualifications. At 20 percent of a school year, this proportion is particularly high in the case of non-German boys.

Linguistic abilities differ

It is simply a fact that boys, particularly those from immigrant families, are the underdogs in the German education system. There are various explanations as to why this might be the case, and one point on which educational researchers do largely agree is that boys do less well than girls on account of their poorer linguistic abilities. The PISA studies indicate that girls perform significantly better in this area. What is more, boys are far less enthusiastic and active readers than girls. Compared with the OECD average, a much higher proportion of boys in Germany say that they do not like reading and would hardly read for pleasure. The results of mediation analyses show that the head-start girls have in reading is at least partly the result of motivational factors (an interest or pleasure in reading). However, someone who is poor at reading and writing is very unlikely to be recommended for or indeed cope with the Gymnasium or Realschule. Much more than maths and science skills, an ability to express oneself and read and write fluently are the sort of core qualifications which determine which school a pupil will attend after leaving primary school.

Besides their poorer linguistic abilities, other factors which might explain why boys fare less well at school are being considered. Heike Diefenbach and Michael Klein, for example, point in their study Bringing boys back in to a correlation between the overrepresentation of women in the teaching profession and the poorer performance of boys. Female teachers, they claim, are likely to value the behaviour of boys and girls differently. "Female teachers dominate the school culture and possibly expect and reward the type of behaviour that girls are taught as part of their socialization process, and boys are not (to the same extent). In contrast, behavioural patterns which disrupt lessons and presumably also have a negative effect on performance in school are more commonly found in boys than girls, and female teachers may perhaps find this behaviour more annoying than male teachers if they are basing their standards on their own gender-specific socialization", write Diefenbach and Klein.

Research is still in its infancy

> Waltraud Cornelißen of the German Youth Institute in Munich also suggests considering the importance of images of masculinity defined at the cultural level, and perhaps even at the local or sub cultural level, as an explanation for the failure of boys in school. After all, studies into different local pupil cultures found that their images of masculinity were more or less incompatible with school requirements. "It is conceivable", says Cornelißen, "that the key images communicated to boys nowadays through the media and in their peer groups groom some boys in 'coolness', 'toughness', technical capabilities, dominant behaviour and self-confidence to a much greater extent than is beneficial for an appropriate level of work discipline, a wide-ranging interest in different subjects and a willingness to recognize teaching staff as experts and persons in authority." Furthermore, problems with the feminization in the teaching profession could then arise if a latent sexism were also associated with the images of masculinity.

Research into the reasons for boys performing less well in school is still fairly much in its infancy. At the same time, it is important not to ignore the fact that there are still problem groups among female pupils, too. For, as Stanat and Kunter say at the end of their study entitled Skills Acquisition, Educational Participation and Schooling of Girls and Boys in an Inter-State Comparison, "the reason for differences in performance lie ultimately in the effectiveness of individual encouragement and the balancing out of the strengths and weaknesses of girls and boys in the classroom". After all, statistics say nothing about the individual, and this is true of both boys and girls. Antonia Loick works as an editor and publicist in Cologne.