Boys’ ‘Underachievement’

In the 1990s a panic started about boys’ ‘underachievement’ in North America, Australia, the UK and some other parts of Western Europe.  In 1996, the UK’s Chief Inspector of Schools called it “one of the most disturbing problems facing the education system” and it remains prominent in recent policy reports and media coverage.

Researchers in the Gender and Education Association take a critical feminist approach to the issue of boys’ underachievement.

First, they have pointed out that this is not a new phenomenon. For example, the 11+ examination that was taken by nearly all 11 year olds in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s  had different pass rates for girls and boys. Otherwise loads more girls than boys would’ve passed! And, as long ago as 1693, John Locke complained about the poor language skills of (upper-class) boys compared to girls. This was something that he thought “not to be so much their Fault, as the Fault of their Education”.

The next question is: if boys’ underachievement isn’t a new thing, then why is it an issue now? First, economic changes in many Western countries have led to a drop in the number of jobs available in manufacturing and other fields which suit young men who leave school with few or no educational qualifications. As a result, these young working-class men have become a ‘problem’. Second, feminism has had a massive impact on young women’s aspirations. It has opened up educational and career choices to girls and women and this has made qualifications more important for them and their futures. In particular, girls now have greater access to and success in high status subjects like mathematics and science. Third, examination performance is increasingly central to policy with, for example, the introduction of publicly available league tables of results and the funding of schools based on student outcomes. Statisticians now pore over examination results tables and international comparisons looking for patterns including between girls and boys.

So, does the focus on boys underachievement matter? In short it does because the boy’s underachievement debate controls how we understand gender and education. It makes us pay more attention to some things and forget about other things. It ignores other differences between young people, particularly of ethnicity and class, which actually have a far greater affect on results. We need to ask which boys are beating which girls? The debate turns achievement into an issue of girls vs. boys, as in the sensationalist picture above. And, since girls are on top, there’s no space to tackle the problems that girls have in education. including teenage pregnancy, sexualisation and bullying in friendship groups.

Feminists have also looked critically at the strategies proposed to address the ‘problem with boys’. For example, they have questioned the need for more male teachers and for boy-friendly teaching methods. There is a big push to recruit more male teachers, particularly in primary schools, to act as role models for their male pupils. Yet research shows that the gender of the teacher has no effect on how well boys achieve in school. Similarly, to solve the gender gap in reading policymakers have suggested giving boys adventure stories and factual books. But research shows that boys have a more positive attitude to reading when all pupils are encouraged to read as wide a range of books as possible.


Useful Links

Does the gender of a teacher really matter? Research into the effects of the teachers’ gender on their pupils learning. It involved interviews with more than 300 7- to 8-year-olds in England. The findings revealed that the gender of teachers had little apparent effect on the academic motivation and engagement of either boys or girls. For the majority of the children, the gender of the teacher was largely immaterial. They valued teachers, whether men or women, who were consistent and even-handed and supportive of them as learners.

Mythbusters: addressing gender and achievement: This document identifies and dispels some of the current and unhelpful myths about gender and education and counters them with evidence. It is designed for use by educators from all phases and stages of schooling and can be used in a variety of ways and contexts, including to open up dialogue about gender issues in education with teachers and other school staff, trainees and pupils.

EACEA, 2010. Gender differences in educational outcomes: study on the measures taken and the current situation in Europe: Europe wide research into gender and achievement.

Heroes or zeroes? Becky Francis writes about the position of ‘underachieving’ boys in UK policy. Boys generally are presented as vulnerable and ‘at risk’. But certain groups of working-class boys are beginning to be demonised for their apparent wastefulness of resources and failure to take responsibility for their own achievement.

Further Reading
Epstein, D., Elwood, J., Hey, V. and Maw, J. (1998) Failing boys? Issues in gender and underachievement. Buckingham, Open University Press: This book challenges the widespread perception that all boys are underachieving at school. It raises the more important and critical questions of which boys? At what stage of education? And according to what criteria?

Foster, V., Kimmel, M. and Skelton, C. (2001) ‘What about the boys?’ An overview of the debates, in: W. Martino & B. Meyenn (Eds) What about the boys? Issues of masculnity in schools. Buckingham, Open Univeristy Press: This is the introduction to an edited collection brings together leading researchers from Australia, United Kingdom and the United States to explore issues of boys, schooling and masculinities within the context of the current concern about the education of boys.

Lucey, H. and Walkerdine, V. (2000) Boys’ underachievement: Social class and changing masculinities, in: T. Cox (Ed.) Combating educational disadvantage: Meeting the needs of vulnerable children. London, Falmer, 37-52: This chapter looks at the intersection of social class and gender in determining boys’ achievement. Drawing on a longitudinal study of literacy in London, Helen Lucey and Valerie Walkerdine look at the processes through which some, mainly working-class, boys fail which middle-class boys maintain their educational advantage.

Moss, G. (2007) Literacy and gender: researching texts, contexts and readers. Abingdon, Routledge: Gemma Moss draws on a wide range of research to dispel myths about boys, girls and reading and writing,

Reay, D. (2002). Shaun’s Story: Troubling dominant discourses of working class masculinities. Gender and Education, 14(3), 221-234: Diane Reay  tells the story of a hard working,  well behaved, poor, white, working-class boy trying to achieve academically in a ‘sink’ inner city boys’ comprehensive school,  whilst simultaneously trying to maintain his standing within the male peer group culture. In doing so she raises  questions about the possibilities  of bringing together white, working class masculinities with educational success in inner city working class schooling.

Warrington, M., Younger, M. and Williams, J. (2000) Student attitudes, image and the gender gap. British Educational Research Journal, 26(3), 393-407:  This article explores the different attitudes of English girls and boys to General Certificate of Secondary Education work. It provides suggestions to account for the differences, particularly related to peer pressure, image, and social groupings and shows that boys were ridiculed more for working hard and were under greater pressure to confirm to a cool, masculine image.

Additional Resources

Boys, girls and achievement in England: In this powerpoint, GEA member Heather Mendick summarises what the research evidence tells us about ‘boys’ underachievement’. Although designed for use with teachers as continuing professional development, this could also be used with A-level or undergraduate students. The pictures are taken from the film Kes, The Simpsons episode Girls Just Wanna Have Sums, and the film Role Models.

Page author: Heather Mendick

Image: Graham Mendick

Updated: 15th January 2013