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

One thought on “Boys’ ‘Underachievement’

  1. Yes, the belief boys should be strong and girls protected has been with us for many years and caused girls to do better in school. We need to realize our current genetics models are very flawed by not recognizing how our individual environments and differential treatment do greatly affect thinking, learning, motivation, and mental heatlh. I imagine there are two reasons:
    1. The belief in genetics has blinded researchers to the great social, environmental causes of learning, motivation and academics.
    2. The present view of average stress sees stress only as occurring in some present situation, event, or work. We need to see how our average stress is made up many layers of past, present, future – experiences, fears, preparations for defense, needs, values of others, a host of unresolved mental work that remains with us we each carry as individuals as an average that takes up real mental energy from thinking, learning, motivation to learn, and affects our mental/emotional health.
    To understand this, “we must redefine our average stress as many layers of mental work we carry with us that take away real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think, learn, concentrate, and enjoy the learning process”. This differential treatment creates very real differences in learning by individual and by group.
    The problem involves two entirely different treatments of Males and Females as early as one year of age and increases in differential treatment. This is creating the growing Male Crisis. The belief Males should be strong allows more aggressive treatment of Males as early as one year, designed to create more layers of agitation, fear, and tension, so they will be prepared to fight, defend, and be tough. This is coupled with much “less” kind, stable, (very little verbal interaction) and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. It is this more aggressive, less supportive treatment that creates the toughness or maintained, higher average layers of – anger, fear, anxiety, preparation for defense, etc. This remains in the mind as higher average stress that take away real mental energy needed for academics. This increases over time and continued by society from parents, yes teachers, and others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance/distrust of others -parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; lags in communication, lower social vocabulary, poor sentence structure; also higher average stress: more layers of mental agitated conflicts and fears taking away real mental energy that hurt learning and motivation to learn. This also creates more activity due to need for stress relief from their higher average stress. It creates more defensiveness and wariness of others further limiting social and emotional growth. The higher average stress creates higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on the pencil and tighter grip) that hurts writing and motivation to write (hurting the writing and creating early fatigue). It creates much lag in development due to lack of care creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also society gives Males love and honor (essential needs for self-worth) only on condition of some achievement or status. This was designed to keep Male esteem and feelings of self-worth low to keep them striving and even give their lives in time of war for small measures of love and honor. Males not achieving in school or other are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not an option for fear of coddling. Many Males thus falling behind in academics then turn their attention toward video games, and sports to receive small measures of love and honor not received in the classroom. The belief boys should be strong and the false belief in genetics creates a mental denial of any connection with differential treatment and the lower academics, lower esteem, and other problems, removing all good sense when it comes to raising boys today. I feel there is an almost emotional cannibalism allowed upon Males by society, even young Males who appear weak, all to make them tough.
    Note, it is not just about feelings and more openness that is needed as it is more support and care in general from infancy. Remember it is the aggressive treatment that is increased for any sign of weakness and much wariness they feel for others, especially adults (parents and teachers) who feel it necessary – and more freely allowed to use more aggressive treatment for any sign of weakness or vulnerability. This maintained by others in society.
    As for reading, we need high social vocabulary, social experience with sentence structure, and “lower average stress to perform the abstract skill of reading: decoding, visualizing, organizing, reaching back into our social vocabulary to learn new words in print, and enjoying the process. Boys are deprived in these areas due to much less care, interaction, and more aggressive treatment in general. This hurts reading and motivation to read.
    I feel the shows of masculinity and misbehavior are pretty much copouts to both show separation from failure in school and to gleam small measures of love and honor from peers. The defensiveness from authority is really pretty straight forward, especially in lower socioeconomic areas where strength, power, and status hold very real currency in those areas. For those students it is not just misbehavior but a real tug of war or fight for minimum feelings of self-worth from a continual fight they feel outside the classroom as well as in.
    The suicide epidemic is the result of Males being deprived sufficiently from those essential feelings of self-worth of less love and honor simply for being boys or men. The training they are given from an early age is preventing many of them from competing in the information age and thus losing the means to secure legally – income, status, and power to earn in some way, love and honor from society. This creates over time, psychological suffering that wears down their remaining feelings of self-worth to the point of suicide. There is no net for Males, all designed to make them tough. As girls, we are treated much better and so enjoy more hope and care from society.
    Since we as girls by differential treatment are given much more positive, continual, mental, emotional/social support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls compared with boys. We enjoy much more continuous care and support from infancy through adulthood and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things: lower average stress for more ease of learning. We do enjoy much freedom of expression from much protection that makes us look less stable at times. Of course we can also use that same freedom of expression to give verbal, silent abuse, and hollow kindness/patronization to our Male peers with impunity knowing we are protected. We enjoy lower muscle tension for better handwriting/motivation; higher social vocabulary; lower average stress for reading/motivation; much more positive, trust/communication with adults, teachers, peers; and much more support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the more amplified the differential treatment from a young age and increased and more differentiated over time. Now with girls and women taking over many areas of society, we are enjoying even more lavishing of love and honor, while boys and men are still treated to be tough are failing more and so are being given even more ridicule and abuse by society and yes, also by girls and women using our protected freeness of expression and now, even from false feelings of superiority. Learning theory and article on the Male Crisis will go to all on request or can be read from my home site at

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