Underachievement can be defined in several ways. The sub-group have chosen to define underachieving pupils as: ‘pupils who are not disruptive or badly behaved, nor probably, amongst the most able pupils. They are seen as co-operative, often quiet and not problematic in either the academic or social sense. However, this profile means that they may become anonymous within the classroom and thus under-perform in relation to their academic potential. ‘
Working with this definition means that the sub-group has not concerned itself with pupils with special ducational needs or the most able pupils, although they note that it is possible for any group of pupils to underachieve. The problem of the academic underachievement of girls has been highlighted by researchers who have examined sex differences in the outcomes of school and higher education since the 1970s and explored how females experience learning (Paechter 1998). Maleness and education was not seen as a problem and many aspects of masculinity went unresearched (Connell 1989, 1995).
Over the last ten years there has been a dramatic shift from initial concern about the attainment of girls to a growing concern about the underachievement of boys (Gender & Education 1997, International Journal of Inclusive Education 1998). However the ‘new issue’ of the 90s in Western societies including the US, Australia and the UK became the underachievement of working class boys (Gilbert & Rowe 1989, Solksten1993).
The regular monitoring of performance through end of key stage assessments and exam results reveal that in all parts of the UK boys are trailing substantially behind girls in ll stages of schooling (QCA 2000). The perceived problem has a dual focus – working class boys were not motivated to achieve academic success and neither are they motivated to become the ‘new men’ that women are perceived to want (Delamont 1999). Findings from recent brain research suggest that there may be genetic influences at work to explain the slower progress of boys, especially in relation to language acquisition (Jensen 1995). Due to slower neurological development boys are less ready for an early start in formal reading and writing than girls.
As a consequence in many European countries early education includes a stronger emphasis on kinaesthetic andoral approaches to conceptual understanding and learning. We know that good spoken language skills provide the best grounding for reading and writing, and until speech is fluent and competent early formal teaching may be unrewarding and off-putting for boys (Millard1997). Other factors in child-rearing may play a part in the different language capacities of girls and boys. Young girls play social games, for example with dolls, that fosters language development.
Boys more active play, for example with toy cars, may encourage spatial learning but only language of the ‘Vroom, vroom’ kind. Boys keenness for computers may only encourage low level repetitive gaming with little use of extended, elaborate or syntactical language. In the playground girls spend more time talking than boys, and in family life may be given more responsibility for social tasks and looking after siblings. Gender preferences in learning styles may also be a contributing factor, girls being more compliant, or as one teacher put it: ‘they are just more teachable than boys’.
However it is in the area of boys attitudes to schooling that the problem seems to be most intractable (Head 1999). Whether due to nature or nurture girls respond more readily to what they are asked to do, whether it is schoolwork or homework. Boys tend to be more disruptive and ‘off-task’ in the classroom, although disruptive behaviour is by no means gender specific. Concentration spans vary. Research in one school found ‘a typical 13-14 year old boy concentrates for only 4 or 5 minutes compared to 13 minutes for girls’ (Bleach 1996).
Girls are not only better readers and writers at age 11, they tend to work harder and have a greater sense of pride in their progress than boys. Levels of motivation are crucially important for boys whose learning needs to be rooted in confidence, competence and interest (MacDonald et al 1998). Unmotivated boys, particularly at the ends of the ability spectrum tend to fall by the wayside Since the mid-1990s the media have been explaining the gender gap as the result of an ‘anti-school’, ‘anti learning’ and ‘laddish’ culture among boys (Guardian, 1998).
Researchers have however developed richer descriptions of the male response to schooling in post-industrial societies (Mac an Ghaill 1994, Connell 1995). A variety of styles of masculinity was found among male secondary pupils and teachers. The male subcultures included not only the familiar groups of ‘academic achievers’ and ‘macho lads’, but also the ‘new enterprisers’ (NE) and the ‘real Englishmen’ (REM). The NE were working class boys who wanted to be self-employed, and the REM were disaffected middle class boys.
It is possible that such groups have always existed in UK schools, but were not recognised. Male behaviour even today can be taken for granted, and summarised in unreflective generalisations such as the following from a teacher in a west London school referring to the lack of motivation for writing shown by her working class boys: ‘Well they are boys aren’t they, what can you expect? ‘ Traditionally the working man was a father, husband and breadwinner. With increasing numbers of lone-parent families, over 90% of which are headed by women, these roles are closed to many men.
And boys growing up in these families lack the role models of father, husband and breadwinner. Lone-parent, mother-headed families are concentrated in the lower working class. Growing up in such families are concentrated in the lower working class. Growing up in such families can threaten traditional working-class masculine identities (Jackson,1988) So it can be concluded that from 1970 to 1990 boys were achieving better academically then girls. However, from 1997 onwards girls have started to thrive much better then boys.