Could Do Better

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.

It’s official: girls are now doing better than boys in nearly all school subjects. Boys’ educational ‘underachievement’ is prompting widespread concern and even panic. But amid all the hysteria about boys, are feminist concerns being marginalised? Debbie Cameron takes a closer look.

On 5 January 1998 an editorial in The Independent said:

The male backlash is here, and it has nothing to do with Robert Bly discovering the wild man banging bongos in American forests. We are talking about boys. They cannot read, write their own names or speak properly. They are physically and socially clumsy. Increasingly they cannot even do boys’ stuff, the maths and the science. As a result they fall prey to entrapment by clever women journalists in pubs [a topical reference to Jack Straw’s son being tricked into offering to sell dope to a reporter], they are outnumbered in the work force and left to their own criminal devices.

The subject under discussion was the problem of ‘underachievement’ among boys in British schools. The issue had just been highlighted by the schools minister Stephen Byers, and by a much-hyped Panorama documentary titled ‘The trouble with boys’. Boys are the newest educational bandwagon, and reports about their allegedly desperate plight have become a media bandwagon too. But feminists would be wise not to take this at face value.

What seems to be the trouble?

For several years now, we have been bombarded with what look on the surface like alarming statistics. If we take the most commonly quoted figures, on 16-year olds’ GCSE exam results, education researcher and writer Bethan Marshall summarises: ‘Girls outperform boys in every single local authority in England. And in half those authorities they outperform them by 10 per cent or more’.

What about pupils at earlier stages of their school careers? In a recent annual report, the Chief Inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, claimed that two thirds of girls but only half of their male peers are ‘fulfilling their potential’. The statistics go on and on, and they all seem to point in the same direction.

But on closer inspection things are not as simple as they might look. It is important to understand, for instance, that ‘underachievement’ does not mean boys are doing worse than they used to. On the contrary, researchers agree that both sexes are doing better overall than they used to: it’s just that girls have made more progress than boys, to the point where they no longer lag behind them but have overtaken them. In other words, there is no absolute standard for what counts as ‘achievement’; boys can only be seen to be ‘underachieving’ when they are compared with girls.

This might suggest there is a covert assumption that boys ought to be doing as well as or better than girls; girls outperforming boys is contrary to the natural order of things, and therefore signals a problem. There is also an assumption that the reversal in girls’ and boys’ fortunes represents something new. Yet as Bethan Marshall points out, on one of the most crucial measures of ‘achievement’ in the past — the Eleven Plus exam which determined what kind of secondary education a child in Britain would receive — girls consistently did better than boys. This problem was solved by having a different pass mark for each sex: boys could get into grammar schools with lower marks than girls needed. The official justification was that boys were late developers.

The present picture is also complicated by significant differences within each gender group. One group of researchers has found that among the lowest achievers, pupils who leave school with no qualifications, are disaffected in class and/or habitual truants, girls and boys are about equally represented. The gender gap is not constant across social classes. Other research has suggested there are significant differences between ethnic groups. It has been claimed that Black (African-Caribbean) girls are doing better not only than Black boys but also than white girls. Asian boys (except those of Bangladeshi descent) do better than other groups of boys.

The statistics may also reflect the way some boys’ schools, under the regime of more parental choice introduced by the last government and continued by the present one, have become unpopular and unable to attract higher achievers (parents with clout often want single-sex education for their daughters, but not for their sons). There is evidence that when a school’s intake becomes unbalanced in this way, ‘average’ achievement falls.

It seems then that reality is a lot more complex than the way it has been represented. The newspapers are full of sweeping generalisations about ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ whereas the research shows important differences within each group; the shock-horror headlines assert or imply some sudden recent change for the worse, whereas statistics gathered over time suggest something else entirely. The available evidence could be interpreted in a number of ways, but on no reasonable interpretation does it prove that boys overall are illiterate unemployable failures. Which might prompt us to ask: why are so many people so determined to convince us that they are? Is there a hidden agenda here? And might that agenda have something to do with anti-feminism?

The Full Monty

The Independent editorial contains more than a hint of anti-feminism, with its remarks about ‘entrapment by clever women journalists’ and men being ‘outnumbered in the work force’ by women (in other words, ‘they’re taking our jobs’). Behind this sort of commentary lies a real male fear. What is feared is the scenario dramatised in the film The Full Monty: a post-industrial Britain where the traditional skilled (and relatively highly paid) occupations of working class men, like steelworking and mining, are no longer an option. In this scenario men are either unemployed while their wives bring home the bacon, or else reduced to doing ‘women’s work’ — represented in the film by stripping. Even privileged men who are not directly disadvantaged by changes in the working-class labour market have reason to feel threatened. These changes constitute a very obvious challenge to traditional notions of masculine identity, and to at least one traditional source of men’s power within the home and family, i.e. earning more money than women.

This is the context in which people have started to worry — indeed, panic — about boys’ educational ‘underachievement’. The implicit argument is that if men can no longer hope to make a living wage on the basis of physical strength and skill, they can only stay ahead of women, or even just keep up with them, by gaining the qualifications which jobs in the new economy require. If women are doing better than men on the educational front, it adds insult to injury: women will have men over a barrel.

Feminists might well be suspicious of this argument, however, because it seems to assume that the labour market operates on a principle of ‘the best person for the job’, with ‘best’ being defined in terms of exam qualifications. Against that, it might well be pointed out that common or garden discrimination continues to flourish in the nation’s workplaces. Discussion about boys’ alleged problems tends to stop at the school gate, without asking if their underachievement relative to girls actually is disadvantaging them in the job market. It bears pointing out that some of the research findings about girls getting better exam results go back almost two decades, to the early 1980s. If girls leaving school have been better qualified than boys for 20 years, and if qualifications are so important in predicting career success, one might ask why, for example, the pay gap between the sexes does not seem to be narrowing. Why are women not being paid more for their superior credentials?

Bethan Marshall provides one answer. Citing research done for a 1995 report on industry and education, she comments: ‘It is not at all clear that employers are even looking for the best-qualified candidates’. Many employers continue to emphasise ill-defined qualities of ‘personality’ and ‘self-presentation’; unlike paper qualifications these are to a large extent in the eye of the beholder, leaving plenty of room for prejudices and stereotypes.

A number of researchers have wondered if the same qualities which underlie girls’ school success (most girls get on with the task at hand rather than showing off or constantly drawing attention to themselves, whereas a fair number of boys do the opposite) may also be responsible for their lack of success in many employment sectors. In order to be noticed and rewarded at work, you often have to be not just competent, but able and willing to advertise yourself. In the ‘real world’, bullshit matters just as much as paper qualifications.

It has also been suggested that even if we ignore the bullshit factor, the things girls are good at, and which the examination system rewards them for, are not the things that matter in today’s economy. Put crudely, the argument is that a boy who prefers computer games to homework may actually be doing a better job of preparing himself for the future than a girl who spends her evenings conscientiously writing essays on Romeo and Juliet. Personally I am sceptical about this argument. My own experience of being asked to write job references does not suggest that if only young people had the right skills they would all be getting highly-paid jobs in computing or other technologically-oriented industries. The people I write references for are university graduates rather than school leavers: increasing numbers (of both sexes) end up with service or sales jobs which do not make much use of their skills and qualifications, because those are the jobs on offer. For the present, at least, high technology is not where most of the available work is; explaining gender inequalities in employment with reference to girls’ less developed IT skills seems to me a distraction from the main issue, which is sexism.

Girls may be doing better at school than boys, but the fact is that women across classes still usually lose out economically and professionally to men. If we keep that in mind, there is surely something worrying about arguments that boys are now the real losers, and that more resources should be directed towards their educational needs. A particular worry for feminists is that the resources in question may be resources that were previously earmarked for girls under the banner of equal opportunities. That might sound like paranoia, but I don’t think the possibility can be dismissed out of hand, when some contributors to the debate on underachievement are openly questioning whether feminism in education has ‘gone too far’, leaving boys to pay the price.

Blaming women

In an article titled ‘New Lads, New Panics?’ Debbie Epstein identifies a number of key themes or ‘discourses’ in the current debate on boys. The first one she labels ‘Poor Boys’, a discourse in which women, and especially feminists, are blamed for boys’ failures. One recurring complaint under this heading concerns the supposed dominance of women in the teaching profession. Because of this dominance, schools allegedly have a ‘feminised’ culture, against which boys will ‘naturally’ tend to rebel. A version of this argument was recycled by Stephen Byers, the government minister whose comments prompted the Independent editorial. He suggested that boys needed more male teachers to act as role models.

As Jane Miller has pointed out in her excellent book about women teachers, School for Women, this is very far from being a novel suggestion. Since the advent of mass schooling in the nineteenth century it has persistently been claimed that merely by being female, women teachers are harming their male pupils. Jane Miller quotes the school superintendent who said in 1911:

I am strongly of the opinion that the presence of women as teachers of boys…causes thousands of boys to become disgusted with and to leave the schools…because of their intense dislike to being (using their own words) ‘bossed by women’.

Also quoted in Jane Miller’s book is an article that appeared in the Times Educational Supplement in 1994, which reported recruiters’ concerns that ‘the knock-on effect of a predominantly female teaching force will be to stereotype the profession further and deprive children of male role-models’. Apparently it is bad not only for boys but also for the image of the entire profession if teachers are ‘predominantly female’. Recently Nigel de Gruchy, leader of one of the teaching unions, used the need to get more men into the classroom as an argument for increasing teachers’ pay. He noted that while a teacher’s salary might be acceptable as a second income, it would not attract someone who expected to be the family’s main breadwinner — a role Mr de Gruchy evidently allots to men, though one imagines there are plenty of single mothers among his members.

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that in the secondary school sector, where there is so much concern about boys’ performance in public examinations, women do not currently outnumber men teachers; in the primary school sector they do significantly outnumber them, but men are disproportionately represented in authority positions — almost half of primary head teachers are male. The idea that there are too many women teachers and that they ‘dominate’ the profession seems to be based on some strange assumptions about what the ‘right’ number of women would be. We might also suspect that underneath the modern jargon about ‘role models’ lurks the same old male ‘dislike to being bossed by women’. An equitable approach to recruitment, promotion and pay would challenge that attitude rather than pandering to it.

Another recurring argument about boys’ underachievement is that boys do badly because they see academic pursuits as incompatible with masculinity. Debbie Epstein calls this the ‘Boys will be boys’ discourse, and she points out that once again it is nothing new. A government report in 1923 suggested that boys have a ‘habit of healthy idleness’; there is nothing wrong with their natural intellectual faculties, they simply choose not to apply themselves. More recently, Bethan Marshall found in her research that even the most academically able boys dreaded being seen as ‘boffins’: caring about schoolwork was for girls.

Once again, the solution to this problem is often seen to lie in providing more male role-models, especially in areas such as reading, where boys lag significantly behind girls. As one researcher was quoted in a newspaper report explaining: ‘A lot of boys only see their mothers reading at home and female teachers reading in the classroom. Reading is seen as a female pursuit not a masculine one’. This researcher called, once again, for more men in the classroom and more involvement of fathers in their sons’ education.

The idea seems to be that if boys saw their fathers, and male teachers, reading, they would cease to regard the activity as a threat to their masculinity. But this seems like a confusion between cause and effect. The author of one recent book about gender and literacy found that many boys did see their fathers reading things like newspapers, instructional manuals and documents related to their jobs. When this was pointed out to them, however, the boys said it wasn’t real reading! Their conviction that reading is ‘girly’ seems to override their actual experience of observing men engaged in it, and this suggests that the ‘more male role models’ solution is simplistic.

Perhaps the problem is not so much a lack of role models as it is an extreme and stultifying notion of masculinity among school-age boys. The gender stereotypes held by both boys and girls are of course something many feminist teachers have seen it as their business to address through anti-sexist work in the classroom. The question is, though, how will the new focus on under-achieving boys affect this kind of feminist work?

Challenging masculinity?

I put that question to several feminists I know who train teachers and/or do education research, and found there was some disagreement among them. One view was that the new interest in boys need not entail shifting attention or resources away from girls, or from the issue of gender equality. Such a shift was unlikely to happen, because most of the researchers involved have an explicitly feminist agenda. They see masculinity as the problem, and anti-sexist work which takes a critical approach to masculinity as the way forward. Some feminists welcomed the current eagerness to fund research on boys, feeling that although there was always some risk of being co-opted, if researchers were careful they could use the opportunity to advance a radical agenda. Debbie Epstein’s article exemplifies this view, concluding:

The current moral panic around boys’ ‘underachievement’ has produced a key opportunity for challenging gender inequalities in schools, but it is one which is fraught with danger. …A reactionary recuperation of feminist insights and concerns is also possible. The task of the moment is to ensure this does not happen.

Other women I spoke to, in contrast, thought the ‘reactionary recuperation’ had already happened. They worried that work with and about girls was being pushed into the margins. One told me she found it ‘ironic’ that she had several times applied for grants to do research on girls and been unsuccessful, whereas the first time she submitted a proposal on boys she got funding. Another said it was all very well to point to the feminist political agenda of most researchers, but that agenda was not filtering through into policy documents.

This woman illustrated her point using a report that had just come out from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) called Can Do Better: Raising Boys’ Achievements in English. A good example of Debbie Epstein’s ‘Boys will be boys’ discourse, this document makes numerous generalisations about boys — for instance, that they ‘have difficulty discussing emotions’ and ‘need well-defined tasks’ if they are not to lose interest — but it does not treat these characteristics as problematic. On the contrary, the point seems to be that this is just the way boys are: teachers who are aware of boys’ strengths and weaknesses will be able to design more relevant activities and tasks for them. The document does stress that boys’ needs should not be met at the expense of girls’, but the researcher I discussed it with felt that putting its suggestions into action would almost inevitably marginalise girls.

On balance, I am not persuaded that the official agenda — what the QCA refers to as ‘raising boys’ achievements’ — fits comfortably into a feminist framework emphasising anti-sexist work around masculinity. In feminist educational circles it may be obvious that masculinity is the root of the problem, but that is not the way it is being presented to everyone else, either in official policy documents like Can Do Better or in media reporting. These are the sources from which most people — including most teachers — get their information; and it is difficult to argue that the message they put across has much to do with feminism. If anything, the reverse is true: in its more ‘populist’ versions, the panic about boys taps into some highly reactionary ideas floating around at the moment, both about gender and about education.

For instance, the evidence that boys are often badly behaved in class and perform poorly in certain subjects (like English and foreign languages) gets wheeled out to bolster the currently fashionable theory that most male-female differences are really biological. While educational research continues to assume that nurture is more important than nature in explaining what happens in school, other forms of academic inquiry (e.g. psychology) and popular common-sense are increasingly being pervaded by crude biologism (see ‘Back To Nature’, T&S 36). TV science programmes like this summer’s Why Men Don’t Iron advance the thesis that boys’ genes make them good at some things and bad at others. So if we want them to do better in school, the only effective strategy is to design the schooling we provide around their ‘natural’ aptitudes and preferences. ‘Boys will be boys’, in other words.

Also relevant to the ‘male underachievement’ issue is the reactionary educational philosophy known as ‘back to basics’, which was promoted vigorously by the Conservative government during the late 1980s and 1990s, and has not fallen out of favour with the advent of a new Labour administration. It has been claimed repeatedly that ‘progressive’ teaching and assessment methods favour girls whereas ‘traditional’ methods are more congenial to boys. On that basis it has been argued that one reason girls have recently been doing better at GCSE is that assessment no longer depends entirely on traditional exams, but includes coursework as well.

This line of argument is both objectionable and inaccurate. One objectionable thing about it is the automatic assumption that girls’ success is a mere artefact of particular teaching methods — not coincidentally, the very methods politicians would like to get rid of anyway in the name of ‘going back to basics’. But in addition the whole argument is based on stereotypes which the statistical evidence does not support.

Bethan Marshall argues quite convincingly that coursework does not particularly favour girls, though continuous assessment — which gives you an immediate return on your efforts — may enable low educational achievers of both sexes to get more out of schooling than they would otherwise. Be that as it may, in many subjects girls were outperforming boys at GCSE before coursework was introduced, and the tendency has persisted — indeed, the gap has widened — since coursework was drastically reduced amid hysteria about ‘falling standards’ in 1992. Even if the stereotypes were accurate, though, it is still striking that some people would be happy to discard assessment practices introduced for independent educational reasons, simply because they result in girls doing better.

Controlling teachers

Debbie Epstein links what I have been calling ‘back to basics’ with the new managerial approach to education in general. In the last decade, successive British governments have been obsessed with exerting more and more control over what is taught in schools and how. They have introduced management dogma to education: you standardise and constantly measure everything, you set targets and benchmarks, you publish the results. Hence the national curriculum, hence school league tables, hence the ‘naming and shaming’ of schools that are not measuring up. Within this approach, boys’ underachievement is addressed as part of a wider problem of ‘failing schools’. Debbie Epstein finds this unsatisfactory, but more because it is apolitical than because it is directly anti-feminist.

My own view is slightly different. I think managerialism is, among other things, a deliberate and conscious attack on feminism, and other radical political ideologies such as socialism and anti-racism, in the teaching profession. The Conservatives who enacted far-reaching educational ‘reform’ in the 1980s saw education as the last and most entrenched bastion of so-called ‘political correctness’ and social egalitarianism. Their propaganda referred to a left wing ‘educational establishment’ which supposedly ran schools in accordance with its own vested interests and crazed political theories rather than acting in the interests of children. The power of this so-called ‘establishment’ had to be smashed, and it has been. An important aim of the new managerialism was to curb the autonomy of education professionals, and while this disem­powers all teachers, I would argue that it has been particularly disempowering for those who dissent — as feminists and other radicals do — from orthodox wisdom about the aims of education.

Professional autonomy has been undermined by leaving less and less scope for teachers to decide how they organise their own classrooms. The national curriculum tells teachers what to teach, and increasingly they are being told by government agencies what methods to use (they are now required to teach reading through a daily ‘literacy hour’, for example). The government has even mooted using pre-packaged standard lesson plans, ostensibly to save teachers time on preparation and allow them to concentrate on teaching — as if deciding what and how to teach were not an integral part of the activity.

Educational research done in universities and colleges has also been publicly attacked as incompetent, biased and useless. This judgement is based on a report by a notoriously right-wing ‘expert’ (one Professor Tooley) who read precisely 41 of the thousands of papers published between 1994 and 1996 before drawing his conclusions. Lending credence to the suspicion that the agenda was not purely ‘managerial’ and ‘apolitical’, Professor Tooley was particularly scathing about research on class, race and gender. (He remarked that ‘concern about gender is only concern about girls, and boys don’t seem to matter at all’. Isn’t it amazing how fast things can change!) Labour minister Tessa Blackstone told the Times Educational Supplement that future research must focus on practical issues ‘so that teachers and policymakers know what works’ (quoted TES August 28 1998). It seems academic researchers are no longer supposed to raise theoretical (and political) questions such as ‘works for what?’ and ‘works for whom?’. Told what to teach and how, denied access to any ideas which do not have the stamp of official approval, teachers will become like technicians, passively implementing policies handed down from on high and firmly discouraged from thinking for themselves. In this regime there will be no room for radical politics.

Another thing there appears to be no room for in the brave new world of managerialism is the idea that education could be worthwhile in itself, or that schools might legitimately have different values from the ‘real world’ and the ‘world of work’ — phrases which are, in fact, euphemisms for ‘capitalism’. When teachers are told off by David Blunkett or Chris Woodhead for using ‘soft’ (which also implies, ‘feminine’) methods like group work and continuous assessment, or for encouraging self-expression at the expense of ‘basic skills’, the voice I hear is the calculating and philistine voice of the employers’ lobby, demanding that schools should do no more and no less than prepare young people to take up their allotted place in the capitalist order.

Countering new myths

Whatever the problems of schools today, and of girls and women in them, from a feminist perspective changes in education must rank among the success stories of the last 25 years. Schooling is, arguably, the biggest and most important social institution where feminism has made a noticeable difference. Girls are receiving more and better education than ever before, and even if they still face disadvantage in the wider world, they are no longer routinely treated as second class citizens in the classroom. As Jane Miller says, though, these huge and positive achievements on the part of girls and feminist teachers have been ‘greeted with a wringing of hands and a reminder that what girls have gained, boys have lost’ (p.1).

Jane Miller was prompted to write her book by a strong feeling that the achievements of girls, and the work of women teachers, should be celebrated, not ignored or disparaged. I agree: there is a strain of real contempt for women and girls in recent commentary on gender and education, and feminists need to speak out against it. The message that comes across to me is that boys and men still count in a way girls and women don’t. Even when boys and men are being represented as a problem, it is considered to be everyone’s problem, whereas the problems (and in this case, the achievements) of girls and women remain a minority interest.

But what really prompted me to write this piece was an uneasy feeling that even feminists are beginning to be swayed by oversimplified arguments peddled by the media and politicians about boys’ academic underachievement, their lack of positive role-models and their dire future employment prospects. Most feminists would say they want equality with men, not male subordination, and they are consequently receptive to what look like reasonable arguments that boys now need special help. Until I looked more closely at the evidence, I was half persuaded by these arguments myself. But on inspection, the arguments do not stand up, whereas the underlying thread of anti-feminism is all too obvious.

Many feminists are involved with schools, not only as teachers but also as parents and as governors. I think feminists in these positions need to be on the look out for dubious claims about boys’ situation and proposals to improve it which might prove detrimental to girls. We must be ready to defend the achievements of feminism, and prepared to counter new educational myths. And we should also oppose, as a threat to both women and feminism in the classroom, the current desire of politicians and employers to make teachers stop thinking and just do what they’re told.



Debbie Cameron ‘Back to Nature’ T&S 36, Winter 1997/8

Debbie Epstein ‘New Lads, New Panics?’ CREG News 1998, London Institute of Education

Bethan Marshall ‘Boys go to Jupiter to be more stupider, and girls go to Mars to be superstars’

Critical Quarterly 40.2, 1998

Jane Miller School for Women (Virago 1996)

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority Can Do Better: Raising Boys’ Achievements in English (QCA, 1998)

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