Why Do Boys Fail in School?
Warning: this is long and ranty!
I want you to take note of how I have titled this blog. I could have said, as do much of the media – Why do schools fail boys? – but I want to step back from the constant blame-the-teacher, slag-off-the-school culture that is endemic across the media in both the UK and Oz (and the USA). I am pushed to write this blog in response to an article in last week’s Times Magazine (My Son and Britain’s Boy Crisis, 15-10-2016) where a father of a white British boy waxed damnation against the current education system that according to a raft of statistics is failing boys.
He is correct: the stats are worrying. Girls out perform boys at every level on their way through school: by 8 years 83% of girls achieved level 4+ in reading, writing and maths, as opposed to boys achieving 77% (2015); at GCSE level (15/16 years) girls have out-performed boys for over 25 years, with girls achieving 61.8% 5 A*-C grades compared to boys achieving 52.5% (2015). At university in the UK there are 90,000 more women than men. Add to that there are 65,000 more unemployed male NEETS (not in education, employment and training) than there are females.
The stats are of concern for white British boys across all measures and, in what is no surprise to many of us, a quarter of boys start reception (aged 4) struggling to speak a full sentence or follow instructions. (These stats come from the magazine article but are widely known in this country.)
Education in too many parts of the world is not fit for purpose and the current push in Tasmania to make students start school earlier will not help address some of the issues faced by a range of students. In the UK there is an alarming trend to diagnose boys with ADHD more and more, and for them to be labeled failures before they even finish primary school.
The father in the Times article blames teachers and the education system. He states boldly: ‘The gender education gap has been in existence for at least 30 years and is no secret… It is unacceptable that governments of all colours, the education sector and the trade unions have willfully continued to turn a blind eye to the issue.’ These are the words of an angry father.
Understandably he doesn’t know what happens within the education sector or what teachers have to deal with on a daily basis. He sees education in a limited way, as a parent, albeit a worried parent but one with enough clout to have his opinions and ideas published in a large circulation newspaper.
The issue with failing sections of the community is not a secret in schools. We are constantly being asked to cater to particular cohorts; for many years it has been Black-Caribbean boys in the UK; at home it has been Aboriginal students. Now things here have shifted and it is white British boys who are failing most dramatically. In schools we know this, we have them in our sites and are bringing to bear a range of interventions designed to stem the tide of failure.
But, in all honesty, by the time they get to secondary school the rot has well and truly set in. Some students can always be inspired and turned around but to think that schools can do this alone, or single teachers are somehow responsible, is somewhat delusional.
Let’s unpack some of the issues facing boys (and many of our girls too).
1.School structures – the way education is delivered has not really changed over time: one teacher delivering information, setting tasks, assessing tasks, to the many. Students are expected to co-operate, do their best, ask for help and actively engage in the work. It’s a nice idea but in practice it isn’t the reality. Once upon a time students were governed by fear and corporal punishment; the teacher free to dispense whatever justice they deemed necessary to control the class and get the learning done. Yes, class sizes were much bigger. But teachers had more control and there were consequences for failure – you did not progress willy-nilly through the grades just because you were a year older. No, you could be 14 and sitting in a class with 8 year olds – a bit of an incentive to pass.
These days there are very few consequences for students who neither learn nor behave. While I do not endorse corporal punishment, the powerlessness that teachers have to contend with does make controlling the unwilling and unable a challenge on a daily – sometimes hourly – basis. The amount of paperwork a school has to amass before a student can be excluded is obscenely excessive. A lot of pain has to be endured by many before a student is removed from education. Students do not need to pass anything on their way through school and in fact in the UK we call anything above a C a ‘good pass’. You can get as low as a G and that’s somehow okay too – it’s a result!
2.School starting age. Students start school very young here and, as noted, there is a push for that at home too. I wonder at this indecent haste to push young people into what could be described as a factory system of education… what are we hoping to achieve? The most successful systems in the world – yes, the Scandinavians – start school later and there is overwhelming evidence that starting school before 7 is more likely to be counter-productive. (see article: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence) Yet, those who have no understanding of how learning occurs, through play, through a wide range of activities; who don’t understand how development works, (hello Piaget) believe children should be forced into more formal learning situations sooner.
So, why do governments push for early school ages? Because so many children, mainly boys, are already educationally behind, because they believe in the holy grail of formal factory style education?? Because you can blame schools for failure but it’s harder to blame parents?
But the truth is that many kids aren’t ready for the sit still, be quiet and comply regime of primary school. Young children need to be playing, learning consequences, discovering boundaries and books in a more relaxed, informal setting. But the family unit is under pressure, families need two incomes, or more often there isn’t a father: we need to face that problem too.
But, back to early starting – which gender suffers most from being forced to sit still, from not playing rough or outside enough? Oh, yes, it is boys. And so they find it harder to conform, to behave. They are being asked to do a range of things before they are ready and are being failed as a consequence. And then labeled. Failure. ADHD. There is a huge range of research that shows that boys tend to develop later than girls across a variety of skills. This doesn’t mean they are failing, or stupid or have some condition. It simply means they aren’t there yet. But most of them will get there: they will make it, if they are given a fair chance.
3.The testing regime. I’ve never worked anywhere that loves a test as much as the British Education system does. Let’s test them right from the start, which means, let’s fail them right from the start. The range of tests in Primary school takes little account of the variations in student readiness, in the fact that students – regardless of gender or ethnicity – learn at different rates and just because you can’t do something at 4, doesn’t mean you won’t have caught up by the time you’re 7 or 11.
How would you feel if you were being told you were a failure every few years in school? Wouldn’t you turn off, give up, accept the label? This is what the British system is doing to children, and yes, especially boys. Do you think teachers don’t know this? Do you think they are happy about this?
No, teachers are NOT happy about this, they do not support the plethora of changes that are constantly sweeping through education, that do nothing to help students learn and achieve, that demoralize staff and fail students. But teachers are not listened to. The father from the Times article needs to realize that: teachers do not have a voice when it comes to educational policy. We are silenced. Union bashing is used to silence us. Demonizing us is used to silence us.
4.Recent changes – the Gove changes – do not help under-achieving non-academic students. The focus on academic subjects, on facts, on exams, does nothing for modern students. Gove’s changes fly in the face of a modern world. He has denied the Arts, ignored vocational courses; made the curriculum narrow and mean (rather like him, some might say). He, along with many others, has ignored the needs of the students, those who have to cope in a modern world.
We are told to cater to student differences, to differentiate in our planning, while all the time working towards the same final assessment – exams. Never mind if you can’t cope in exams, never mind if you can’t remember quotes or facts, never mind if you are more creative, you still get to sit the same exam. And we all, from primary school through to A level, have to teach to the exam. How wonderful is that?
Yet we teachers have to implement these changes, despite knowing they are not educationally sound. I teach dead-white British male writers (mostly, with a few token exceptions) to classrooms stuffed with students of all colours, cultures and ethnic persuasions. How do these students connect with such out-dated writing, with experiences that they struggle to make sense of? How do they read out-dated language structures when they don’t read anything modern, other than text-speak on their phones?
How can you encourage a love of reading when a xenophobic Oxford educated white man has taken English back to the 1950s and willfully ignored the modern literary world?
Yes, it is my job to make the connections, to point out the relevance of Shakespeare today, to show that Jekyll and Hyde still resonates today despite the torturous language and the complete lack of female characters. But my job would be so much easier if there was something a bit more modern that Lord of the Flies, or An Inspector Calls. Yes, the classics matter, but some of them should be from other countries too…
5.The importance of reading. Boys need to read. But a lot of boys can’t. They can’t recognize words or pronounce them. They can’t sit still long enough to read a page, let alone finish a full novel. Is reading really seen as a girly pursuit, as something unmanly? Sadly you would think so in schools. The resistance to reading is palpable – yes, all genders, but especially boys.
Men need to read, to be seen reading, fathers need to read to their sons; head teachers need to support their English departments when they want students to read silently in lessons and not tell the Head of English that ‘silent reading doesn’t show adequate progress, so it must stop’. Yes, I am quoting an actual head-teacher – a man, who told me silent reading was a waste of time, never mind the educationally sound evidence and research.
6.Fathers need to step up. Whether they are part of the family unit, or weekend dads, they need to take responsibility for their sons’ educations. This means things like reading, like accepting the rules, playing fair, owning their own behaviour; respect for women, especially given that schools – especially primary schools – are full of women. Fathers need to work with schools as mothers do. Fathers need to set good examples for their sons. (Yes, I know, many fathers do and I have known many wonderful fathers, so don’t get offended out there.)
7.Not enough male teachers. Without doubt there is an issue with the gender balance in most schools. Primary schools are traditionally the province of women but secondary schools tend to be female heavy too. In both cases the men tend to hold the senior positions and are not as present in the classroom. This is an issue. Boys do need to see more men in schools. It was similar in northern Australia where Aboriginal people needed to see themselves as teachers, to see themselves in such important positions to help get the message that education was for them too, and significant programs were set up to enable this to happen.
Ask yourself why teaching remains such a female dominated profession. Why do so few men choose not to become teachers, especially primary teachers?
There are some very simple answers here. There has been too much down grading of the profession by politicians (and others) over the years. Teachers are persistently blamed for the ills of society. In English schools teacher are held responsible for the progress of all their students. The students are somehow not responsible for their own progress: no, it is the teacher. How can that be? It doesn’t matter what you have done, you could always have done something else.
The man in The Times article subscribes to this view. The teacher is the problem, the reason he fears for his son’s future. Yes, there are crap teachers, of course there are. But there aren’t as many as you would think. There are also crap students who do not respond to anything, who do not care about their own education or others and who, sadly, are supported by their parents in their destructive ways.
The problem is that young teachers are not staying in the profession and older, experienced teachers are fed up, or being forced out because they are too expensive, regardless of gender. The much lauded Teach-First program has a 50%+ drop out rate after the obligatory 2 years are completed.
The big problem in recruiting male teachers is that the profession has been so demonized, so devalued and relatively under-paid that no male in his right sense would become a teacher, or if he did, remain in the classroom with the students any longer than need be. In primary schools it has been worse, with scare mongering about pedophiles and foolishness about men being too near young children, as if all men are sexual predators.
Men don’t choose teaching because it is not a prestigious or valued profession. If you want more men in teaching then you have to pay more. Female professions are traditionally paid less, and valued less in society; thus it is with teaching. If you want to recruit men and keep them you have to value education in society and stop trying to pull it apart.
Think on this, those who blame teachers – our Times father who claims to ‘know what bad teachers look like’ – for the ills in education, for failing to meet the needs of students, especially boys. Most head-teachers are men, most PMs and Education Secretaries have been white British men; Ofsted chief inspectors certainly are white British men and yet, as the man in the Times says, the state of education for British boys is a state of national disgrace.
Who should really shoulder the blame for British boys’ chronic under-achievement? This fed up female teacher is happy to point the finger… (Images from Private Collection)