The Trouble with Boys

The report released yesterday by Save the Children which states that a quarter of boys in England began reception class struggling to speak a full sentence or follow instructions makes for worrying reading for anyone concerned with child wellbeing. It makes for particularly worrying reading for anyone concerned with equality and the way in which our schools support the different needs of boys and girls at different ages.


Make no bones about it, this is an equality issue and not from the usual angle of girls needing to be supported to do well. This is not, as one school tweeted yesterday, in the most breathtaking display of gender discrimination I have seen in recent years, about girls doing better than boys, it is about the ways in which the needs of boys in reception years, are being conflated with those of girls, leading to the boys failing to meet the standards met by girls at that age.


If we applied the same attitude as that displayed by Calderstones T & L in their tweet yesterday, by the time those same boys and girls reach the age of 15, when the boys are outstripping the girls in academic achievement, we would be shouting ‘you go boys,’ instead of paying attention to the different needs of girls for learning and development, which is the cornerstone of excellent education. There is something badly wrong with a system that adjusts its input to suit one gender but not the other, and there is something even more wrong with a system that sees the failure of boys as being their problem not ours.


‘The problem with boys’ says teacher Tammy Allen at Clapham school in a BBC interview is that ‘they are less engaged in what we would call formal education, their speech doesn’t always develop as quickly as girls....’ a statement she uses to explain to us why boys fall behind girls almost from day one.


The problem with boys is an attitude which is so deeply ingrained into our culture these days that a teacher can say this without anyone raising even an eyebrow, never mind a complaint. The problem with this kind of attitude is that it is discrimination in practice, not that this teacher or those tweeting gleefully yesterday in support of the advantages that girls enjoy at this stage in their learning, are likely to understand that.


The first rule of equality work is to understand the ways in which different people at different times in their lives need different support to achieve healthy outcomes. The problem with the attitude that is displayed in such discussion about boys starting out behind girls at school is that it fails to recognise that boys are disadvantaged by a school system which is organised to meet the needs of those who are able to engage in formal education.


It is a fact that boys’ development at the age of five is not the same as that of girls and that engagement in formal education would benefit them better from the age of six rather than from the age of five because of this. It is also a fact that by the time boys reach the age of fifteen they are likely to outstrip the academic achievements of girls across much of the curriculum, despite the fact that they began their lives behind the girls in terms of their ability to engage in the kind of activities provided by formal education.


To fully meet the different needs of boys and girls it would require us to adjust the schooling system, not to locate the problem in the children themselves. We have understood that about girls needs in education, thanks to the feminist movement but who is working on behalf of boys to prevent them from being problematised?


The BBC was somewhat shameful in its use of five year olds in its interview, which was cut to uphold the idea that girls are good and boys are bad. It was so biased that I was reminded of the nursery rhyme ‘sugar and spice and all things nice.’ This kind of reporting has no place in a gender equal world where supporting difference not exploiting it is what really matters.

In a world where equality matters in helping our children get the best start possible in life, those upholding the challenges facing boys as being inherently their own fault should take a long hard look at the education system and recognise that the fault lies therein. Equality means not blaming people for the difficulties they face, but adjusting the help that is given so that everyone gets an equal start in life.


The problem for boys, in an education system which is girl focused, is getting enough people to listen and then to speak up. But unless we do, those problems boys face, will only get bigger.