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How can we help boys at school?

Friday 22 Nov 2019
- pencil - How can we help boys at school?

By: Darren Bilton – Deputy Head (Academic), Framlingham College Prep School


Boys and girls are different. We may well aspire to change the centuries of programming and stereotyping that has created such a gulf between the genders but it is essential that we do not ignore it. In this article our Deputy Head (Academic), Darren Bilton, discusses the current climate for boys in school and offers some advice for teachers and for parents as to how we can understand boys better and help them to achieve more and support them to be happier in school.


In most developed countries, on average, boys underperform girls at school. They are worse at reading, less likely to go to university, and their lead in maths is rapidly shrinking. The ‘boy’ problem resonates through our society. In the UK, white working class boys have long been at the bottom of the heap in terms of attainment, but these days boys of all backgrounds are underperforming relative to girls. Adults with poor literacy tend to have bad health, lower wages and little trust in others, says the OECD, the Paris-based international organisation that monitors education globally.

Interestingly many of the jobs currently dominated by men are among the most likely to be automated in the coming decades.

Educationalists have only recently started focusing on this challenging issue, although I’m sure there’s not a school in the country that hasn’t thought about this and tried to do something about it. So what can be done for boys?

Firstly it is important to note this is not a new phenomenon. 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 tend to be over-conscientious, putting their reproductive organs at risk!

A number of studies provided evidence that boys start to get discouraged from the age of eight.  By the time they move into Year 7 there is already a vocabulary gap. Many boys enjoying reading for information but are reluctant to engage with a work of fiction.

Most classrooms are female-run. In part, this reflects the traditional view that looking after small children is ‘women’s work’.  Many boys simply think school is not cool. Boys see girls excel at school, especially in reading and writing and conclude that school is for girls. This all too often means game over for some boys, as the literacy skills demanded, even in Maths and Science classes, only accelerate as they get older. One educationalist stated that “In schools, learning is the incidental thing that happens while kids are socialising. There is a lot of, ‘How do I impress my peers?’  Boys often do that by misbehaving.”

On a more positive note Boys who stay in education until 18 or over, tend to catch up with girls, or have achieved well already.

Politicians are starting to take notice with the launch of the UK’s Men and Boys Coalition in 2016, which is now focusing on their underachievement in education. The House of Commons Equalities Committee has also recently launched an inquiry into male mental health.

School is, in part, about guiding young boys through their most vulnerable phase of life. In the UK, young men and women now have almost equal levels of literacy and pay. But that equality will be at risk unless we fix the boy problem. Here are some recommendations, some OECD and some Mr Bilton!

  • Encourage boys to read what they want – OK it may be a ‘trashy’ novel about football but better this than reading nothing at all. And reading anything will encourage the habit of reading.
  • Children can play video games – but as a reward after prep/revision and never late at night.
  • Discourage lateness at school – schools should be encouraged to start the day quickly with an academic lesson rather than a lengthy form or registration period.
  • Be wary of punishing boys for poor behaviour – too often it simply alienates them further. Work hard on developing their skills to get through the issues and build stronger relationships.
  • Find school activities that appeal to boys – create a more flexible curriculum choice, offer some appealing extra-curricular activities – get them to run them, perhaps embrace their interest in blood & gore or encourage boys who prefer to draw to tell a story as a cartoon strip.
  • Value qualities that are common among boys – such as ‘risk-taking’, which is really desirable in the labour market.
  • Allow competition in the classroom – most boys respond well to competitive high-stakes environments. Boys thrive on praise and rapid response.  Don’t forget boys have an innate insecurity they must not show!
  • Rethink whether every pupil needs to sit down all day – perhaps it is OK for boys to sit at the back and occasionally be allowed to walk around?
  • Encourage more men to be teachers – this would be great and give me a few more colleagues to discuss ‘boy’s things’ within the staff room!

We are currently focussing, as a school, on how we can best educate boys. We are reviewing our practices, our teaching and our behaviour policy and looking for ways to engage boys so they see that doing well at school can be cool. There are of course many extremely diligent, hard-working boys and many girls who aren’t.  Everyone is different. Some of you may think this is an ‘unfashionable topic’ for discussion and it has become ‘normalised’ and we should just accept this. But it is important to note this is a debate being had on a national and global scale. More and more educationalists and politicians are realising that we must not let boys fall further and further behind in education and allow the gap to get bigger. Above all though the world is starting to recognise the importance of addressing the underlying issue here about what boys believe it means to be a “real man”. When boys avoid work, hide their feelings behind bravado, get involved in banter, focus on impressing peers instead of teachers and even go so far as taking pride in failure, they are actually trying to aspire to one of the most outdated stereotypes of all. To help them we have to do all we can to better understand them both in the classroom and outside it.

If you would like to read more on this topic we would highly recommend the following books:

  • ‘Boys don’t try: rethinking masculinity in schools’ by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts – Click here
  • ‘He’s not lazy’ by Dr Adam Price – Click here
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