The Untold Danger of Boys Falling Behind in School
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because poorly educated boys become discontented men.
By Simon Kuper and Emma Jacobs
Matt Smith, acting head teacher of Huntington School in York, is teaching a math class. He projects a circle with three sectors onto the whiteboard. How many degrees is each sector? Twelve boys and girls, ages 15 and 16, in blue uniforms with knotted ties, stare at the board. It’s 10 am on a rainy Tuesday in December, the sort of day that almost anyone who ever went to school will remember.
Huntington is a comprehensive school whose 1,532 pupils (almost all classified as “White British”) range from professors’ kids to children from a poor housing estate. The school has playing fields and tennis courts but is mostly a collection of unremarkable 1960s buildings.
Smith, not quite 40, is a tall, upright, serious figure. Today he is working the room like a performer onstage, scanning faces to make sure everyone is focusing. About once a minute he asks a question. Most of the time several hands go up, even from the two boys in the back row. There is no whispering.
Smith walks the children through the problem step by step. When they finally reach the solution, he exults: “Look how simple maths is!” He points to a boy: “Jim always says to me, doesn’t he, ‘When you go through it, it all makes perfect sense.’”
Boys’ underperformance in reading is not a new phenomenon. Often [it is wrongly] attributed to the women’s movement.
Jonathan Douglas, director, National Literacy Trust
In developed countries, on average, boys underperform girls at school. They are much worse at reading, less likely to go to college and their lead in math is shrinking (to nothingness, in countries such as China and Singapore). In Britain, White working-class boys perform especially badly.
The boy problem reverberates through our societies and politics. Adults with poor literacy tend to have bad health, low wages and little trust in others, says the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based international organization that monitors education globally.
The jobs traditionally dominated by men are among the most likely to be automated in the coming decades. Growing numbers of adult men live with their parents; in the U.K. in 2017, almost a third of males age 20 to 34 were doing so, compared with a fifth of females. Across the West, many discontented lesser-educated men vote for right-wing populists such as Donald Trump.
Educators 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?
Maybe they were always less suited to school than girls. In 1693, the English philosopher John Locke observed that girls learned French much faster than boys did Latin. But, he reassured gentlemen who thought their sons “more dull or incapable than their daughters,” that was simply because French was taught through conversation rather than through the rote learning used to teach Latin.
In 1923, an official British report on secondary schools remarked: “It is well known that most boys, especially at the period of adolescence, have a habit of ‘healthy idleness.’” Meanwhile, the report warned, girls tended to be “overconscientious,” putting their reproductive organs at risk.
Historically, sexism has protected boys. Into the 1970s, some British school systems deliberately upgraded boys’ results in the frequently life-determining 11-plus exam, writes Wendy Webster, a professor of lingustics and history at the University of Huddersfield. 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.
We now have growing scientific evidence to replace old biological superstitions. Gray matter in female brains develops faster.
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 percent, mainly because they are now more likely to apply for college 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.
Why is this? The “men’s rights” movement, led by figures such as Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, blames a world overturned by rampant feminism. That theory, though, ignores the way sexism historically thwarted girls. Jonathan Douglas, director of the U.K.’s National Literacy Trust, notes: “Boys’ underperformance in reading is not a new phenomenon. Often [it is wrongly] attributed to the women’s movement.”
We now have growing scientific evidence to replace old biological superstitions. Gray matter in female brains develops faster, says Dr. Jay Giedd, a 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 beginning at 8 years old. 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 age 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 socialized), and good at sitting and listening, something many small boys find hard, says Francesca Borgonovi, a 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 3 teachers in the OECD were women in 2012, with the highest proportions in younger age groups: 97 percent 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 socializing. There is a lot of ‘How do I impress my peers?’” Boys often do that by misbehaving.
The OECD notes that boys are 8 percentage points more likely than girls to say that 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’ favorite 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 math 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.”
Any school trying to fix the boy problem is inevitably fumbling in the dark. The OECD says none of its surveyed countries “implements system-level, gender-specific policies to address inequality in attainment rates.” Only now, says Borgonovi, have many education ministries even “reached the point that they realize there is a big problem.”
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.
They don’t like it when school feels like a waste of time. It’s about setting clear expectations.
Sir John Holman, chemistry professor emeritus, University of York
Huntington School, rated “outstanding” in every category in last year’s report by Ofsted, the English 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 head teacher and senior leaders have established an impressive culture of high aspirations.”
Smith admits that “high aspirations” sounds like a cliché: “I know all schools would say that. But if you have a young boy from a less privileged background, do you believe he can progress to university?”
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’ behavior “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, which 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 disorganized settings, their capacity for self-regulation suffers,” reports the OECD.
Sir John Holman — chemistry professor emeritus at the University of York, senior educator and former head teacher of Watford Grammar School for Boys — says boys enjoy organized, 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 behavior rather than punish it. Smith says: “There is a school of thought that bad behavior 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 behavioral 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 math GCSE. Instantly, says Smith, “his behavior 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 U.K. is relatively weak at providing routes into technical education. Many practical, less academic boys drop out of the system. Nationwide, 11 percent 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.
One surprising fact about Huntington is its range of ancillary departments. Perhaps the most unusual is its in-house research school. There are just 22 research schools in the U.K., set up by two charities, the Education Endowment Foundation and the Institute for Effective Education. The research schools provide teachers with academic findings of what works in class.
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 cost and apparent effectiveness. The worst — both expensive and pointless — is making a child repeat a year.
When you hit an important word in a story you don’t understand, boys sometimes feel, ‘I’m wasting my time here.’
Matt Smith, acting head master, Huntington School
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 realized that boys were forever stumbling over words, even in math classes, let alone in books. Watson cites a finding that secure comprehension of a text is only likely if you know 95 percent of the words. If you know 75 percent, 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 behavior 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 math, say. Some other words crop up across subjects: “required,” for example, 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.”
During Smith’s math class, he showed the pupils a problem: Simplify 5p-3p + p. Before starting on the math, he helped them define “simplify.”
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 student, the student can evaluate his own performance — and work out strategies to improve. For instance, when doing subtraction, the student 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.
Nor does it devote much teacher time to endless marking of work. “Flick-and-tick marking is pointless,” Smith says. And so the school has managed to keep funding arts. Liz Dunbar, one of Huntington’s three music teachers, states flatly: “The arts are not a luxury.”
She and her colleague Tim Burnage run several choirs and bands at school. The “man choir” practice at lunchtime: about 30 boys in a semicircle, from 11-year-old tenors to burly sixth-form basses, belting out the 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love”:
Ahhhh, ahhhhh / Like walking in the rain and the snow / When there’s nowhere to go / And you’re feelin’ like a part of you is dying.
The boys are focused, in the zone, thinking of nothing else. At moments, they sound beautiful. Burnage and Dunbar also take pupils to hear orchestras. Dunbar says: “It’s not sacrifice. Extracurricular, there is such flipping joy. And afterward, in the classroom they will work so hard for you.” Music, she says, is often ferociously academic (“you should have seen my class struggling with transposition yesterday”); it’s all about hard practice, and when children do well, they gain confidence.
“Confidence,” like “arts,” is a word that can sound fluffy. For teachers in state schools, it can feel tangible. Many children — especially White working-class boys — dread school. It’s where their parents failed, and where they have been failing since the age of 5. “Students will put themselves down,” says Dunbar. “It’s too easy for children to say, ‘I can’t do this.’”
For some children, music can become a reason to go to school. Dunbar talks about the difficult boy who became a soundman in the school orchestra and now works professionally in sound. Music is also a salvation for the Syrian refugee in the man choir and his sister.
The education gap is getting wider and the gender pay gap narrower. You will get a crossover — and then everyone’s going to start panicking
Sam Freedman, CEO, Ark Schools
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 firsthand 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 A’s 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 U.K., full-time male employees earn 8.6 percent more than women.
But change is happening on this front too. The British pay gap has shrunk to the lowest on record and has virtually disappeared for full-time workers under 40 — though it re-emerges after women have children. Sam Freedman, CEO of Ark, a network of British academy schools, says: “It will flip. The education gap is getting wider and the gender pay gap is getting narrower. You will at some point get a crossover, and then everyone’s going to start panicking.” He advocates creating schools and workplaces that bring out the best in both sexes.
The boy problem is finally entering the policy agenda. The U.K.’s Men and Boys’ Coalition, launched in 2016, is focusing on male underachievement in education. The House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee just launched an inquiry into male mental health.
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 U.K., young men and women now have almost equal levels of literacy and pay. That’s nearly miraculous. But that equality will be at risk unless we fix the boy problem.
What does the OECD suggest?
In 2015, the OECD published “The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behavior, Confidence.” Francesca Borgonovi, one of the report’s authors, cautions that “we still don’t have very solid evidence of what works,” because educators are only just starting to focus on boys’ underperformance. Still, here are some recommendations:
- Encourage boys to read what they want. It may be better for them to read a 19th-century novel than a sports magazine, but reading the magazine is a lot better than reading nothing. And reading anything encourages the habit of reading.
- Boys may need more encouragement than girls to read. This can come from parents reading to them, from school libraries or book clubs or from teachers. Some effective classroom practices include asking students what a text means, asking their opinion of it and helping them relate it to their own lives.
- Children can play some video games — but only after homework, and not late at night.
- Closely monitor incipient truancy. It can predict bigger problems ahead. Children at high risk should receive extra support.
- Discourage lateness at school (most common among boys) by starting the day with a fun class.
- Be wary of punishing boys for bad grades or behavior. It could simply “further alienate” them from school. Exclusion, in particular, tends to be gendered. Borgonovi says schools should give boys the skills to get through “transitory problems” rather than push them out.
- Train teachers to be aware of their own gender biases. Historically, biases have worked against girls: Many teachers assumed that girls were worse at math, thus undermining their confidence. But teachers may also assume that boys are worse at reading, or write them off because of their behavior. Education systems could train teachers to detect and correct biases.
- Find learning methods that appeal to boys. The Australian state of Victoria does this with its “Boys, Blokes, Books & Bytes” program, which, says the OECD, “involves adult men as positive role models and reading partners.”
- Value qualities that are common among boys, such as risk-taking. “Risk-taking is valued in labor markets. It allows boys to excel in some areas,” Borgonovi says. Introducing these qualities into schoolwork would help girls acquire them, and make boys happier.
- Allow some competition in the classroom. “Boys respond more to competitive high-stakes environments,” says Borgonovi. They might be less motivated than girls for in-class assessments of work, and more so for tests. A mix of both would be gender-neutral.
- Rethink whether every pupil needs to sit down all day. Borgonovi asks: “Is it a problem if some boys are in the back row and walk around?”
- Encourage more men to become teachers. Germany has a project, Mehr Männer in Kitas (More Men in Early Childhood Education and Care), which tries to encourage males to ignore gender stereotypes when choosing careers.
- Make school transitions more flexible. Boys often struggle with the move from kindergarten to primary school, or primary to secondary. The Netherlands, which has a strong track record on gender equality in education, lets children go back and forth between early childhood and primary programs within the same building. Children move up only when they are ready.
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