Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The trouble with Boys

I recently read a fascinating book by Peg Tyre called The Trouble with Boys. It's all about boys and education, how boys are different from girls and having real problems with education because of the way it's set up.

I wrote about this for The Times, and you can see the piece here or below.

I also wrote a blog post on this topic for School Gate. It's called Do Boys need Boys' Schools?

All work and no play is bad for boys
Boys are falling behind at school, and many believe that the teaching methods used favour girls. What can be done?

Elaine McDowall is worried about her six-year-old son, Harry. “He's always getting told off at school,” she says. “But I know he's not naughty. He's just being a boy. He's loud and boisterous, but loud doesn't always equal bad. His teacher just wants him to be quiet, to sit and concentrate for long periods of time. I think teachers want boys to be like girls, and it's turning my son off school.”

Boys are having a hard time, whether they are 6 or 16. And the situation appears to be getting worse. Within the past few weeks it has been reported that 53 per cent of girls receive five A* to C grade GCSEs including English and Maths, compared with 44 per cent of male pupils. Fourteen girls' schools are in the top 20 listed on the basis of A-level results, while more girls take A levels than boys. Other research suggests that girls are more likely to go to university (the most recent statistics reveal a 7 per cent gap, which is expected to widen), and that 79 per cent of the children excluded from school are boys.

What has caused this downward spiral of underachievement for boys from nursery to university? The blame, says Peg Tyre, the American author of a new book, The Trouble With Boys, and the former education reporter for Newsweek, lies squarely with the school system.

An “unashamed feminist”, Tyre was brought up to worry about the achievement of girls. She was astonished to discover that it is now boys who are falling behind. “Evidence of this trend is everywhere,” she says. “People think there's something wrong with boys, but I'd say that's not necessarily true: it's what we expect of them instead.

“When you talk to boys about school, they say it's girly, that it's lots of ladies talking,” says Tyre. She argues that boys are badly served from pre-school onwards. They are not allowed to run around and not taught by enough male teachers. There has also been an educational shift away from play towards learning and targets at an earlier age.

She is convinced that reading and writing skills are the key to life and educational achievements, but says that boys are falling way behind in these skills. This is partly because they start to read later than girls, and never recover from that earlier deficit. But it is also, Tyre argues, because boys are given the wrong books to read.

“If you don't read well, you don't succeed in school,” she says. “Teachers need to be aware of the different kinds of books there are out there, and not assume that boys and girls want the same things.”

This argument has been well rehearsed in the UK. Recent research revealed that almost 50 per cent of nine-year-old boys read only “if they had to”. “Boys need to be given a reason to read,” says Sophie Quarterman of Oxford University Press, which has just brought out a “reading tree” (a scheme to help teach children to read) aimed specially at boys. “They need to feel that they will get something out of it,” she says.

Jonny Zucker, the author of the Max Flash series, which boasts a 90 per cent male readership, agrees. “Girls have a massive number of tried and tested writers,” he says. “There are not enough of these for boys.”

But like Tyre, Zucker, a father of three young sons and a former primary school teacher, says that the problem is not just with reading. It is with schools. “Up to a certain age, school is completely wrong for boys,” he says. “Because of the demands of the national curriculum, far too long is spent sitting down, whereas boys need to move around - something that isn't physically possible in classrooms.

“It's also important to get on the boys' level. If you haven't got sons or don't know boys very well, boys can be an irritant in the classroom. They make poo jokes; they try to make their friends laugh; they get more tired and are more difficult to teach. You need to allow them to let off steam.”

As Tyre says, not catering to boys' needs could have huge ramifications: “In some ways it's nice to see women on top. But we have to ask who is going to bring up the children and who are these educated women going to marry? In America there are 2.5 million more girls than boys in college, and women tend to marry men of the same level of educational attainment.” Experts appear united that something needs to be done, but recent changes have not helped boys. Children are now taught “to the test” to keep up with the national curriculum. This often means less time for PE or creative subjects, as well as cuts in playtime. More coursework instead of multiple-choice questions has also affected boys.

And despite a push to attract more men to the profession, figures from the Training and Development Agency for Schools found that half of all children between 5 and 11 have no contact with male teachers - a problem in inner cities where single-parent families are more common.

Dr Tony Sewell is chief executive of the London-based charity Generating Genius, and is trying to re-engage boys with learning. The charity was set up to help boys from underprivileged backgrounds to learn about science, and Sewell feels that it is desperately needed.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, people in education wanted to help girls to change, to get rid of the overt sexism around. That has paid off, and girls feel that the world is their oyster,” he says.

“But we've seen a parallel downturn with boys. The curriculum doesn't really meet their needs. If we look at science, it's now being taught in such a theoretical way that boys are being turned off. They need it to be much more practical, more hands-on.”

“Girls are more focused,” says Zaibien Hunter, 15, who has attended summer schools at Generating Genius. “But boys are catching up at our school because there are more male teachers and role models to encourage them.

“I know that people have a stereotype about people like me,” he adds. “They expect me to be disruptive and not to pay attention. They're shocked that I am a young black boy who is intelligent and can achieve.”

For Angela Phillips, who created a storm with her 1993 book The Trouble With Boys: A Wise and Sympathetic Guide to the Risky Business of Raising Sons, this is nothing new. But she's glad that educators and parents are finally starting to notice, and says that one solution would be for children to start school at the age of 5 or 6 as they do in other countries. “Boys mature later than girls,” she says. “Girls will shoot ahead if children start at 4. If boys fall behind at a young age, it will be very difficult for them to catch up.” Others believe that the answer lies in single-sex education, despite the so-called “social disadvantages”.

For Elaine McDowall and her son, the answer is simple. “People need to change their expectations of boys,” she says. “They need to stop assuming that boys will produce beautiful pieces of work or be interested in the same things as girls. All children have got abilities. Why should boys lose out?”