From John Ray's shorter notes
December 20, 2018
Why are boys falling behind at school?
The long article below canvasses a number of explanations but they all seem to be at best partial truths. But there is a powerful biological explanation that they have not considered. I think the problem is mainly a maturation effect. Girls are about two years ahead of boys of their own age in maturity. That makes them more serious and balanced so does give them a big advantage at school in mixed-sex classes.
But boys do catch up in their late teens. By then however their adverse experiences at school may have discouraged them from further education. So the problem is how do you prevent that discouragement?
A pretty obvious solution is all-boys' schools. In such schools boys get to develop in a way that is right for them and come out of it without being constantly made to feel inferior. All-boys schools were long held to be best for boys and we may now be seeing that there is a lot in that old wisdom
It may be noted that a lot of Britain's most prestigious private schools -- such as Eton -- have never departed from that wisdom. They are still single-sex. And the success that old Etonians enjoy in later life is legendary
The debate over single-sex versus coed schools is an old and vexed one with findings and arguments on both sides of the debate. The 19th century model was overwhelmingly single-sex but that tended in the 20th century to be regarded as not "modern" so tended to be abandoned in government schools. The controversy did however, produce a slew of research on the matter. And the conclusions from that did not clearly go either way.
A big 2005 review under the title "Single-Sex Versus Coeducational Schooling: A Systematic Review" is therefore of some interest. It was done under the aegis of the U.S. Dept of Education and attempted an objective review of all the studies on the topic up to that time. What it concluded was that by most criteria there was evidence either way.
The one difference that they found to be fairly firm was the difference in locus of control. They found that boys' schools gave their graduates a greater sense of control over their environment, a greater sense of self-confidence and belief in their own powers make things happen.
That is of course what we traditionally see in the graduates of Britain's prestigious independent schools -- they usually seem to have an almost uncrushable self confidence and regard themselves as the natural leaders in their country, as the important people, in short. So it is interesting to see something like that come out of a U.S. study
And it is also what I have hypothesized above: That a same-sex education will promote self-confidence and deter discouragement.
In developed countries, on average, boys underperform girls at school. They are much worse at reading, less likely to go to university, and their lead in maths is shrinking (to nothingness, in countries such as China and Singapore). In Britain, white working-class boys perform especially badly.
Educationalists have only recently started focusing on the boy problem in earnest, though Smith says: “I don’t think there’s a school in the country that hasn’t thought about it.” So what can be done for boys?
Historically, sexism has protected boys. Into the 1970s, some British school systems deliberately upgraded boys’ results in the frequently life-determining 11+ exam, writes Wendy Webster of Huddersfield University. Girls were often ignored by teachers, sexually harassed and negatively stereotyped in textbooks, according to a report commissioned by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 1992.
But as sexism diminished in schools, girls began outperforming boys. In a reversal of history, in parts of the developed world some girls now have higher expectations than boys for their future education and careers. In 2000, there were still more males than females with tertiary education in OECD countries, yet by 2014, women led, 34 to 30 per cent, mainly because women are now more likely to apply for university than men. Meanwhile, the very worst pupils — children who don’t reach proficiency in any subject on the OECD’s Pisa tests — are overwhelmingly male.
We now have growing scientific evidence to replace old biological superstitions. Grey matter in female brains develops faster, says Jay Giedd, psychiatrist at the University of California San Diego. Because girls mature earlier, they are given more books sooner, and learn more. Sexism may encourage this: parents often stereotype girls as quiet readers, and boys as rambunctious adventurers.
Either way, boys fall behind in school and get discouraged. There is evidence that they lose motivation in class from age eight. Smith says that when 11-year-olds arrive at Huntington, “the vocabulary gap between boys and girls is striking”. Many boys enjoy reading for information but struggle with the fiction that is central to schoolwork. The literacy gap peaks at about 16, when boys are often at their most dysfunctional — just when decisions about post-school destinations are being taken.
And whereas most workplaces remain male-friendly environments, schools may be more girl-friendly. Girls tend to be more self-disciplined (perhaps because of how they are socialised), and good at sitting and listening, something many small boys find hard, says Francesca Borgonovi, senior analyst at the OECD. “Boys are too often seen as deficient girls,” says Gijsbert Stoet, a psychologist at Leeds Beckett University.
Most classrooms now are female-run. Two out of three teachers in the OECD were women in 2012, with the highest proportions in younger age groups: 97 per cent in early childhood education. In part, this reflects the traditional view that looking after small children is “women’s work”. On average, girls do more homework. Boys play more video games and generally spend more time online. That can give them practical skills, but it can also alienate them from real life.
Many boys think school is uncool. Borgonovi says: “In schools, learning is the incidental thing that happens while kids are socialising. There is a lot of, ‘How do I impress my peers?’” Boys often do that by misbehaving.
The OECD notes that boys are eight percentage points more likely than girls to say school is a “waste of time”. In the past, especially for the working classes, this made sense; boys typically had to leave school at 16 to work in factories and mines. Today, across the OECD, boys’ favourite response when asked for their future profession is “professional sportsman”.
Interestingly, the gender gap in school attainment is widest in the most gender-equal countries, such as the Nordics. In Finland and Sweden between 2003 and 2012, girls closed much of the gap with boys in maths and widened their lead in reading. The OECD asks: “Are gender gaps a ‘zero-sum game’, in which education systems, schools and families have to choose whether to create an environment that promotes either boys’ performance or girls’ performance?”
When Borgonovi is asked how to make classrooms more boy-friendly without disadvantaging girls, she replies: “It’s a tough question.” She pauses, then: “I’ll get back to you. Some of education requires the self-regulation and discipline that we value in girls.”
Boys who stay in education until age 18 or over tend to catch up with girls, or have achieved well already, so the most serious consequences are for those who leave school at 16 — typically those from poor backgrounds.
Huntington School, rated “outstanding” in every category in last year’s report by Ofsted, the UK’s schools inspectorate, thinks more about disadvantaged children in general than about gender in particular. But the school is still managing to lift struggling boys. Its Ofsted report opens with the lines: “The headteacher and senior leaders have established an impressive culture of high aspirations.”
Most classes at Huntington are mixed-attainment. Smith believes — and the OECD data backs him up — that weaker learners benefit from being around better ones. The aim, he says, is to treat every class “like a top set”.
Ofsted called Huntington pupils’ behaviour “excellent”. Even on the way out of school, children mostly walk rather than run, and don’t push, let alone fight. There are pictures on the walls of correctly knotted ties. That sounds strict. But clear rules and a serious atmosphere may actually soothe boys in particular. More than girls, boys respond to a school’s environment. “When they are in disruptive, chaotic and disorganised settings, their capacity for self-regulation suffers,” reports the OECD.
Sir John Holman — emeritus chemistry professor at York University, senior educationalist and former headteacher of Watford Grammar School for Boys — says boys enjoy organised, high-achieving environments. “They don’t like it when school feels like a waste of time. It’s about setting clear expectations: ‘What we come here for is to learn.’”
When children do misbehave, Huntington tries to correct the behaviour rather than punish it. Smith says: “There is a school of thought that bad behaviour is a form of communication. It could be learning difficulties, it could be problems at home.” Sometimes it’s a death in the family.
So when a child acts up, Huntington piles on the support. The school has a “learning support department” of about 15 people, and a large pastoral team. The staff hold meetings: does the child need a home visit? An educational psychologist? Help from a teaching assistant in class?
Smith tells the story of one boy with long-term behavioural problems: “We never wanted to exclude him. We worked with him, with his family.” Eventually, Huntington found him a day-a-week placement at a local automobile-sector company. He loved it. The company promised him an apprenticeship if he got a Grade 4 in maths GCSE. Instantly, says Smith, “his behaviour improved, his focus improved . . . The most lovely moment was when he attended Year 11 prom, suited and booted. And we helped him get the suit together.” The boy got the apprenticeship.
Holman says the UK is relatively weak at providing routes into technical education. Many practical, less academic boys drop out of the system. Nationwide, 11 per cent of British 16- to 24-year-olds are Neets: “not in education, employment or training”. Nobody who left Huntington’s Year 11 last July became a “Neet”.
Julie Watson, of Huntington’s Research School, says: “So much of this is about stopping doing ineffective practice.” She shows me a chart of common interventions, mapped according to their cost and apparent effectiveness. The worst — both expensive and pointless — is making a child repeat a year.
By contrast, Huntington has focused on two interventions that look cost-effective. Last year, it ran an initiative to increase children’s vocabulary. A question on the GCSE construction exam had started with the words, “Describe how builders liaise . . . ” Several boys didn’t know what “liaise” meant. That threw them.
The school realised that boys were forever stumbling over words, even in maths classes, let alone in books. Watson cites a finding that secure comprehension of a text is only likely if you know 95 per cent of the words. If you know 75 per cent, you will rarely understand a full sentence.
“When you hit an important word in a story that you don’t understand, boys sometimes feel, ‘I’m wasting my time here,’” says Smith. “If the behaviour of kids is not acceptable, it’s generally in subjects where they struggle. What are those subjects? Generally those with a large vocabulary.”
No school can teach children thousands of new words. So in six two-hour sessions last year, the Research School trained Huntington’s staff how to teach vocabulary. A subject teacher has to teach (and return to) words essential to the subject: “angle” in maths, say. Some other words crop up across subjects: “required”, say, or “beneficial”. And teachers teach children to break up words into common roots, prefixes or suffixes: if you know that “Thermos” means “hot”, you can work out “thermal” or “thermonuclear”.
This year, the Research School’s focus is metacognition. Broadly, that means the ability to learn how to learn. Instead of the teacher evaluating the child, the child can evaluate its own performance — and work out strategies to improve. For instance, when doing subtraction, the child knows to check the results by adding the numbers together: 5—3 = 2. Check: 2 + 3 = 5. A child who understands how to learn also knows that he shouldn’t do homework with a smartphone beside him, and that after 45 minutes he risks losing concentration and should take a break.
When schools have to cut spending — as British schools have since the economic crisis — they often start in the arts department. It’s easy to think that schools should focus on old-fashioned reading, writing and arithmetic. Huntington, however, has scrimped elsewhere. It spends little on buildings. “Occasionally a roof leaks and we have to put a bucket underneath,” says Smith.
Many schools have also cut careers departments. Not Huntington: Helen Nelson, full-time head of the “aspirations department”, works from a little hut of her own. This year she hosted a careers fair attended by 50 businesses, colleges and universities. Alumni come to school to describe their jobs. Glimpsing different careers can be transformative, especially for white working-class boys with no first-hand experience of jobs in the modern economy.
Nelson sees careers advice as a key to social mobility. One boy was offered a job interview in nearby Leeds. He’d never taken a train or an intercity bus before, and his mother told him he couldn’t go. Huntington arranged his train ticket. He got the apprenticeship. For another boy, who had scraped into sixth form, the school arranged work experience at a solicitor’s. He went to Crown Court and it changed him.
“He’s predicted now to get As in three of his subjects,” says Nelson. “He wants to study law at university. He’s quite moralistic, he only wants to be a prosecutor. If we’d got him a mediocre placement in an office doing filing, he would probably have stayed on that path through school.”
The boy problem has received relatively little attention. That’s partly because it doesn’t hold back elite boys, but also for an even more fundamental reason: men still fare better in the workplace. In the UK, full-time male employees earn 8.6 per cent more than women.
School is, in part, about guiding males through their most vulnerable phase of life. In adulthood, most catch up with females. The OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills finds “no significant gender differences in literacy proficiency among 16- to 29-year-olds”. Holman says: “I don’t see any evidence that girls are more intelligent than boys, or boys more intelligent than girls.”
And men can catch up at any age, if education systems allow it. The Dutch literacy teacher Anneke Catsburg tweeted last month: “My student W. (66, very low literacy, six years of lessons) put a book on the table: Bambi, a little Disney book. His big fists, broken down with work, stroked the cover: ‘Guys, I’ve done something. For the first time in my life I’ve read a book.’”
In the UK, young men and women now have almost equal levels of literacy and pay. That’s near miraculous. But that equality will be at risk unless we fix the boy problem.
Go to John Ray's Main academic menu
Go to Menu of longer writings
Go to John Ray's basic home page
Go to John Ray's pictorial Home Page
Go to Selected pictures from John Ray's blogs