Gender and Educational Achievement: Part Four

Gender and Educational Achievement: Part 4 of 5: Part Four

Male educational underachievement

Part Four: Explaining the Slower Rate of Improvement in Male Educational Achievement.

  • Introduction

Females outperform males at all levels of the education system, and it is also true that females outperform males in all social classes and in all major ethnic groups. There are substantial gender differences in educational achievement at GCSE Level which means that more females than males enrol on GCE Advanced level courses. Differences in achievement between male and female GCE A level entrants are far smaller than at GCSE level but because there are more female than male GCE Advanced Level entrants there are also more female than male entrants to Higher Education.

In the discussion of the relatively slow educational progress of boys the focus of attention has often been on working class boys [and, indeed on working class white boys] who are said to be particularly susceptible to a macho form of masculinity which discourages identification with academic study. However, it should be noted also that many middle class boys may also be attracted to this culture to some extent although their possession of the cultural, economic, and social capital associated with the middle class may to a considerable extent offset the effects of their, in any case possibly limited, participation in anti-school behaviour.

Note that although middle class females do outperform middle class males, middle class males do outperform gworking class females in education and that social class differences and some ethnic differences in educational achievement are greater than gender differences in educational achievement which means that the general statement that females out-perform male students must be qualified to take account of offsetting social class and ethnic differences. [For example, Chinese boys outperform girls in all other ethnic categories at GCSE level.]

We have seen that many reasons have been suggested for the improved educational achievements of female students at all levels of the UK education system. It is true also that male educational achievements are improving but they are simply improving at a slower rate than female achievements and several reasons have been suggested to account for this.

It is suggested that for perhaps the last 50 years contemporary industrial societies have perhaps for the last 50 years been gradually changing in ways that have destabilised men’s traditional roles within society and that these changes have adversely affected male education prospects. It is often claimed that that men in general are experiencing a crisis of masculinity arising from the deindustrialisation of the UK economy which has reduced the availability of hard, physical manual work which has reduced employment prospects especially but not only for unskilled manual works and undermined their senses f themselves  as tough, resilient men well able to act as the main breadwinner for themselves and their families. Meanwhile although more service jobs have become available  the skills required in these jobs do not correspond  to the men’s sense of traditional masculinity and in any case many unqualified workers  do not possess the communication skills necessary for employment in these occupations, It is claimed also that the emergence of the “new man”  who is ”more in touch with his feminine side has further  confused the traditional males’ sense of self  and that these overall trends  have led to increased male involvement in drug abuse, violence and criminality as well as to higher rates of male depression and suicide. Most recently the emergence of the “Me Too” movement and the evidence of large scale sexual harassment of girls and women in schools and universities had added another dimension to the crisis of masculinity which some have argued has developed into a “toxic masculinity.”.


The concept of the crisis of masculinity was given increasing coverage as a result of a widely reported speech delivered by the Labour MP Dianne Abbott in 2013 but the crisis  of masculinity concept has also always attracted considerable criticism and it has been argued for example that this crisis of masculinity certainly does not affect all men who are still more likely than women to be employed in high paid professional and managerial positions especially in science, technology, and engineering. Also, it is women who are most likely to experience poverty and to be locked into a triple shifted of paid employment, housework, and childcare and emotional work within the family. Nevertheless, despite these caveats it does seem likely that some men are facing difficulties in coping with contemporary social developments.

For further information:

·       Click here for a podcast on the Crisis of Masculinity from tutor2u.

·       Click here for BBC coverage of Dianne Abbott’s speech on toxic masculinity 2013

·       Click here  for Channel 4 coverage of Diane Abbott’s speech 2013

·       Click here for a book chapter entitled Masculinities in Crisis? Which calls into question the extent of the crisis  of masculinity

·        Click here for an item on toxic masculinity in which among other things you will find a link to a recent Gillette advertisement which was then discussed on Good Morning Britain. This may provoke some discussion.



One important element of the crisis of masculinity narrative is the boys’ educational prospects have been undermined because of the feminisation of education. Click here for a tutor2u topic video on the Feminisation of Education

In her study "Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women [1992] Susan Faludi argued that in the USA women were increasingly told especially in the more conservative sections of the mass media that they had now achieved economic equality with men  but that this economic progress had come at considerable cost to themselves in that career women in their mid- 30s were allegedly prone to infertility; that unmarried and/or childless women were especially prone to depression and that the ultimate cause of these difficulties was FEMINISM. Faludi rejected such arguments and argued very strongly that male -female employment opportunities and earnings differences were still considerable and that if, anything, fulltime housewives were more likely than employed women to be unhealthy.

  • Click here for Angela McRobbie video in which she discusses the technicalities of post-Feminism. [Extension work!]


With reference to the UK education system, it has been argued that boys’ educational progress has been impeded by the feminisation of education. In many cases, but not all, proponents of the theory of the feminisation of education claimed that the influence of feminism on education had actually gone too far and was now impeding the progress of boys and, as we shall see,  this led to a range of critical responses, especially from feminist sociologists. The main points used to support claims that the UK education system has been feminised include the following.

  • It has been pointed out most teachers in First Schools and Middle Schools are female which means that girls are far more likely than boys to be presented with positive educational role model.
  • It is claimed also that female teachers might be more likely to choose reading materials for their classes which were of greater interest to girls rather than boys.
  • It is claimed that insofar as educational methods increasingly involve collaborative groups work rather than individual competitive assignments this impedes boys’ because they are unable to deploy their allegedly more competitive temperaments.
  • It is argued that insofar as English and Humanities subjects revolve very much around personal; and social issues, this operates to the advantage of girls whose leisure pursuits often involve discussion of such issues and to the disadvantage of boys whose leisure pursuits are more likely to involve physical activity.
  • It has been argued even recently that teachers have failed to appreciate the educational disadvantages that boys actually face. so that they may assume incorrectly that "laddish" behaviour is relatively harmless and make few attempts to correct it.
  • There are also arguments that insufficient attention has been given to the possibilities that boys and girls learn in different ways and may therefore need different types of teaching.
  • It may be argued also that the kind of negative labelling investigated in earlier units may apply nowadays especially to many mainly working class boys who may continue to be labelled by teachers as lacking in ability and/or interest and that teachers' ongoing emphasis on relative failure [not the relatively slow progress] of boys may by now be convincing some boys that they are actually incapable of progress.
  • It is argued that when the relative importance of coursework increased within the overall assessment of GCSE grades this operated to the advantage of girls who were seen as more likely than boys to plan and complete coursework more effectively than boys whereas boys were more likely than girls to be successful when coursework was based entirely upon examinations.
  • It was argued that school disciplinary procedures had come to be based more on discussion and negotiation and that boys would benefit from rather more authoritarian disciplinary procedures which would be more likely to be implemented by male teachers.
  • Related to this there were calls for more male teachers to be employed in primary schools and for the employment of male mentors who could act as positive role models for male students.
  • Click here and here for Tony Sewell [and follow further links] and here  for a BBC item providing further information on the feminisation of education


  • Criticisms of the notion of the feminisation of education can be found, for example in Failing Boys by Debbie Epstein and co. [1999]. Such criticisms include the following.


  • The emphasis on the adverse consequences for males of the feminisation of education distracts attention from problems which many females continue to face in schools and in Higher Education. Such difficulties are powerfully emphasised in this item from BBC News.


  • There are cases where teachers use resources and teaching methods specifically geared to boy’ interests and where the seat recalcitrant boys next to hardworking girls in the hope of reducing boys’ indiscipline. Arguably these strategies may disadvantage girls.
  • Although it is true that First and Middle School teachers are far more likely to be female, this is not the case in Secondary Schools where more senior teachers are likely to be male.
  • One would expect trained teachers [whether male or female] to choose a range of reading materials suitable for boys and girls and to suggest otherwise is to criticise their professionalism. Also, the increased prominence given to this issue in recent years has led to specific initiatives designed to ensure that curricula cater for the needs of girls and boys. However, there is general agreement that more neds to be done to challenge the existence of an anti-school masculine macho culture as well as the relative underachievement of many, mainly working class, girls.
  • It is denied that teachers [male and female] are more likely to label girls positively and boys negatively although there are also recent studies which suggest that negative labelling of both male and female working class students is still widespread.
  • Teachers are likely to use a combination of collaborative group work an individual competitive work. This is seen as especially necessary given the importance of SATs and GCSE examinations. Also, most schools are organised around setting and streaming systems which prioritise very clearly competition among pupils.
  • Furthermore, it is not obvious that boys are inherently more competitive than girls. Ambitious girls and boys are both likely to be academically competitive [and anyone who witnessed the recent Women’s European Football Competition would be unlikely to call into question females’ willingness to compete!]. However perhaps a problem is that some boys wish to engage in a competition to demonstrate their lack of commitment to school work.
  • Once coursework was introduced into GCSE and GCE Advanced Level assessments it was argued that this would advantage females because of their allegedly superior organisational skills, but it could also be argued that coursework assignments test especially depth of understanding as well as organisational skills and that in doing so they serve a very useful purpose. However, it was argued that the key problem with some coursework based assessment was that some pupils [both males and females] might receive unfair external assistance in the completion of their work.
  • The extent to which females have been advantaged by the increased use of coursework as a scheme of assessment is uncertain. Francis and Skelton [2005] quote evidence to the effect that even in the era of GCE ordinary level examinations, females were likely to outperform males and that their results began to improve before coursework was introduced.
  • However a detailed  recent research paper from  Ofqual  concludes that ”Male students perform better than female students in wholly examined GCSE specifications and also in GCSE specifications where there is a greater level of control in the coursework. Female students tend to have better outcomes than males where internally set, internally marked coursework is included.” Also in a  Guardian article from 2018  Jon Andrews [who is deputy head of research at the Education Policy Institute] comments in relation to the 2018 GCSE results that  “The move away from coursework is thought to benefit boys in particular”. Nevertheless, despite the discontinuation of coursework the GCSE gender gap, although slightly reduced, remained
  • Recent data indicate that in GCE Advanced Level Examinations males’ results did improve relative to females’ results once coursework was excluded from assessments. Male A* rates were consistently higher than female A* rates 2016-2019 but in terms of A* /A grades the gender gap fluctuated. In the years of CAGS females outperformed males at A* and A*/A grades but the female lead declined once examinations were reintroduced in 2022.
  • However, it should be noted that the relative changes in males’ and females’ results following the ending of coursework were small as is indicated in the following table. Of course, there were no GCE Advanced Level examinations in 2020 and 2021 and special provisions surrounded the 2022 examinations but when GCE Advanced level examinations returned in 2022 females again outperformed males although the gender gap in results did narrow. You might like to discuss these results with your teachers. 



Gender and GCE Advanced Level Results 2010- 2022

2010 2011 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Female A*-E 98.1 98.3 98.5 98.3 98.1 98 99.8 99.6 98.7
Male A*-E 97 97.3 97.6 97.3 97.1 97 99.7 99.3 98.1
Female A*-C 77.7 78.4 79.7 79.3 78.7 77.6 89.8 90.7 82.6
Male A*-C 72.7 73.7 75 75.3 75.1 73.7 85.6 85.9 80.4
Female A*/A 27.9 27.7 26 26.1 26.2 25.5 40 46.9 36.4
Male A*/A 26.1 26.2 25.7 26.6 26.6 25.4 36.7 42.1 35.2
Female A* 8.3 8.2 7.7 7.8 7.6 7.5 14.5 19.7 14.8
Male A* 7.9 8.2 8.5 8.8 8.5 8.2 14.3 18.4 14.4


  • It seems clear that girls' relative educational improvement must be explained by a wide ranging combination of factors operative inside and outside of the schools and that the effects of the inclusion or exclusion of coursework components in GCSE and GCE Advanced level courses should not be overstated.
  • The issue of gender and school discipline also needs further investigation. It is for example possible that some female teachers are strict authoritarian disciplinarians, and some male teachers are not while many sociologists would argue that a more authoritarian approach to discipline mainly imposed by male teachers would actually be a regressive development which would promote the very expansion of hegemonic masculinity which is an important cause of male educational underachievement in the first place. Against this of course some would continue to argue that “boys need discipline and male teachers can provide it” or, alternatively that male teachers would not necessarily impose authoritarian discipline.
  • Similar controversies have surrounded proposals to increase the number of male mentors. It has been argued, for example, that this would strengthen the very tendencies toward patriarchy which females seek to reduce. However, this would depend upon exactly which male mentors are chosen.
  • Very importantly it is argued that this emphasis on the feminisation of education marginalises the importance of the educational disadvantages that many females continue to face within the education such as limited educational achievement of some girls, the relatively limited enrolment of girls on GCE Advanced Level Mathematics and Physics [although not GCE Advanced Level Biology and Chemistry] and the growing sexual harassment of females which has recently been given increasing attention .

There is no denying that especially at Key Stages One and Two and at GCSE levels the relatively slow educational progress of some boys is a cause for concern and that teaching methods could in principle be modified in various ways to promote boys’ faster educational achievement. At the same time, many sociologists, and especially those sympathetic to feminism argue that the extent to which the education system has been feminised should certainly not be overstated.  

The Importance of Mainly Male, Anti-School Pupil Subcultures

It is argued that boys’ rate of educational progress has been relatively slow because of many boys’ adherence to an anti-school macho masculine subculture which inhibits both their own educational progress and the educational progress of the peers [both male and female] who are keen to study but are prevented from doing so. In some cases, as in the theories of Charles Murray, the educational failure of boys is linked to the development of an alleged work=shy welfare dependent underclass which is said to be weakening the fabric of society as a whole. However even if this anti-school macho masculine subculture does exist many  sociologists would see Murray’s theory of the underclass as an attempt  to distract attention from the social inequalities which contribute to the development of this subculture.


Differences in male and female study habits [ The following points should not be taken to represent average tendencies but not apply to all girls and all boys.]

  • It is argued that girls will make more progress than boys in the early stages of education because they mature more rapidly than boys.
  • If boys are to catch up girls at GCSE level, it will be especially important for them to improve their grades in English, Foreign Languages and Humanities where the performance gap is largest.
  • However, from an early age, females have been socialised to take a greater interest in leisure pursuits involving greater interest in reading, discussion, and communication whereas boys’ leisure pursuits are more likely to be based around physical activities. These female leisure pursuits will help them to develop interests and skills which will be very useful throughout their education, and it may also be seen as a more feminine trait to express opinions on the kinds of personal issues which arise in Arts and Humanities subjects all of which puts some boys at a disadvantage in these subjects.
  • Becky Francis has suggested that, even at primary school, girls are likely to define their femininity in terms of good sense and selflessness whereas young boys are more raucous and have been described by Becky Francis as more likely than girls to be essentially “selfish and silly” in primary schools and to be “immature” in secondary schools . Girls are therefore more likely than boys to behave well in class and to take their studies more seriously. It has also been argued that girls have superior concentration skills
  • It is claimed that relative to female pupils, male pupils are more likely to exhibit overconfidence in their academic abilities which may mean that they are less likely than females to see the need for sustained study to make progress and, therefore, also less likely to ask individually for teachers’ help because they do not regard it as necessary also less likely than females. [However, it is possible also that some females are held back by a lack of self-confidence.]
  • Several of these points link to the development of male and female pupil subcultures which are discussed in the following section


Differences in male and female pupil subcultures

  • David Hargreaves, Paul Willis, and Phil Brown [1960s- 1980s]

Most sociological studies of relative working class underachievement in the last 50 years have focused on the relative underachievement of white working class boys and it has been suggested that there might be specific factors which impede the educational progress of working class boys that do not apply to working class girls.

Thus, it is suggested in these studies that many working class boys were likely to develop anti-school subcultures in response to streaming within the schools [as, for example, in the David Hargreaves study] or as a general aspect of working class culture [as, for example, in the Paul Willis study] or because of both working class cultural factors and school organisational factors [as, for example, in Phil Brown's study].

In the work of David Hargreaves [Social Relations in a Secondary School 1969] it had been argued that working class boys are far more likely than middle class boys to be allocated to lower streams which has the effect of denying them official academic status within the school and leading them to respond by generating an anti-school subculture as a means of regaining status at least among their peers. Thus, in lower streams misbehaviour is rife and prospects for educational progress are much reduced even for the pupils who are prepared to take their studies seriously.

However, the “lads” in Paul Willis’ 1979 study “Learning to Labour are seen as having grown up in a working class culture which values a traditional form of masculinity associated with v physical toughness, opposition to authority, overt heterosexuality and sporting prowess and dismisses respect for teacher authority and academic study leading to professional non-manual employment as associated with femininity. Consequently, the lads show little or no interest in educational achievement because they seek the kind of physically demanding, unskilled manual work which would requires few academic qualifications but which, as they see, it would confirm their masculinity

Whatever the reasons for their misbehaviour these boys may be especially likely to misbehave in class and serious misbehaviour may mean that they are excluded temporarily from class or even permanently from school. Boys are in fact about 3 times more likely than girls to be permanently excluded from school.  Click here for 2020/21 data on Permanent exclusions and suspensions in England.

Boys continue to have more than three times the number of permanent exclusions, with almost 3,000 exclusions, at a rate of 0.07, compared to almost 1,000 for girls (0.02). Boys also account for more than twice the number of suspensions for girls, at 248,000 compared to 105,000. This equates to a suspension rate of 5.86 for boys compared to 2.58 for girls. 

However, it was recognised that even in the 1970s only a minority of working class boys rejected the education system outright in this way while most conformed at least to some extent in the hope of picking up useful practical skills and reasonable school references which would help them in their search for employment  Thus in his study Schooling Ordinary Kids Brown distinguishes between 3 possible working class frames of reference: getting in, getting on and getting out and between Rems, Swots and Ordinary Kids. [“Rems” are essentially lower stream pupils who might be regarded as in some ways in need of “remedial” education; “swots” are higher stream pupils with good chances of educational success and “ordinary kids” are the majority of pupils who while are they not expecting sparkling academic success do aspire to some educational qualifications which will hopefully improve their employment prospects. ]

According to Brown, the main thing about ordinary kids is that they are not rems or swots. For the ordinary kids, beyond the basics, much of the school curriculum is seen as irrelevant. Basic Mathematics and English are important (but not the more theoretical aspects) as are practical subjects which might be useful for career purposes. These students are not studying for O levels but believe that reasonable CSE passes can improve their employment prospects. They believe too that such passes, although important, can be achieved without great effort and so, although they do not rebel against school, neither do they work especially hard. “The ordinary kids do what is minimally required to placate the teacher and to pass examinations, particularly when the subject is viewed as a waste of time or boring due to the way in which it is taught or due to its assumed future irrelevance,” Ordinary kids who do wish to work rather harder will be subject to considerable peer pressure not to do so. Ordinary kids will also sometimes be critical of rems: “They could have tried, if they had CSEs at least it’s something: at least they’re trying, aren’t they?”

Phil Brown notes also that although there are some important gender differences in subject choice and career aspirations, “boys and girls fit within the category of ordinary kids… and they adapt a similar orientation which in turn highlights a number of issues about the relationship between class and gender for understanding working class educational behaviour”

In summary, the studies of Hargreaves and Willis both pointed to the existence of many conformist boys although they did focus attention on the most rebellious boys who were in a minority. Phil Brown gives greater emphasis to a spectrum of behaviour among boys and girls ranging from rebellion to conformity with most boys and most girls occupying an intermediate position.

  • Tony Sewell and Afro-Caribbean Boys [1997]

All the above studies made no references at all to ethnic differences in male subcultures, but it has been argued that certain aspects of youth subculture operative among Afro-Caribbean boys may help to explain their relative educational under -achievement. Perhaps the best known study of Afro- Caribbean youth subculture in the UK has been provided by Tony Sewell in "Black Masculinities and Schooling" [1997], which is based upon an investigation of Afro-Caribbean boys in a boys -only 11-16 comprehensive school. Sewell distinguishes between four main responses among Afro-Caribbean boy to education which, [using the terminology originally devised by the American sociologist R. K. Merton] he terms conformity, innovation, retreatism and rebellion.

Thus 41% of the Afro-Caribbean pupils in the sample are described as "Conformists" who accept school rules and regulations and are ambitious for educational success; 35% are "Innovators" who are also ambitious for educational success but they are critical of school rules and regulations and distance themselves from both teachers and conformist teachers because they wish to be educationally successful but on their own terms; there are a small proportion [6%] of "Retreatists" [often pupils who have been defined as educationally subnormal]   who aim simply to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble  but unfortunately are nevertheless unlikely to be successful; and finally Sewell describes 18% of the pupils as "Rebels" who identify closely with Black Macho street culture as portrayed especially in certain sections of the mass media and music industries, lack ambition and are likely to behave in confrontational ways which teachers believe   reduce the prospects for effective class teaching and may represent a blatant challenge to teacher authority.

It is important to note that only 18% of these boys are classified as rebels in comparison with the 76% who are keen for educational success although admittedly 35% of the pupils pursue success in a way that some teachers might regard as "unorthodox" . In relation to the "Rebels" it is possible that in some cases these boys’ youthful self-confidence may provoke negative over-reactions by teachers who may have misinterpreted their behaviour as confrontational and threatening.  Also, if these boys do show anger within the school environment, such anger may be understandable given their experiences of racism and blocked opportunities in the wider society and of what they perceive to be discriminatory setting procedures and excessive rates of school exclusion relative to boys in other ethnic groups [especially white boys] who can be just as disruptive but are less likely to be excluded.

Tony Sewell's study has been criticised in some quarters for its alleged excessive emphasis on rebellious youth subculture as an explanation of relative educational achievement among Afro-Caribbean origin boys. However, although he does indeed focus on the rebelliousness of some Afro-Caribbean origin boys Tony Sewell does also describe the teacher racism [sometimes unintended] and generally poor teaching which the pupils receive in many but not all classes as well as the extent to which teacher-pupil confrontations arise partly as a result of rebellious pupil behaviour but also partly as a result of teachers' misinterpretation of this behaviour. Other analysts do, however focus more than Tony Sewell on the impact of poverty and/or of school organisation and less than Tony Sewell on aspects of Afro-Caribbean youth culture.

Click here  for a recent article by Tony Sewell and click here for a profile of Tony Sewell.

  • The Educational Attainments of Muslim Pupils

You may Click here and here  for two detailed articles on the educational attainments of Muslim pupils which also address gender issues.


  • The Impact of Globalisation and the Deindustrialisation of the UK

In the last 40-50 years the increased globalisation of the world economy has led to  the relative decline of UK manufacturing  industry since the 1980s  and to the reduced availability of both unskilled and skilled manual work and it has been argued  that the boys  continuing to reject education  in the hope of finding manual work which  no longer exists are in effect experiencing a crisis of masculinity in that they have been unable  to adapt their behaviour in school  to the changing economic circumstances which means that they are increasingly likely to face limited job prospects and unemployment if they fail to adopt a more positive attitude to school work and gaining educational qualifications.

Nowadays, however, increasing numbers of working class boys have surely recognised the increased importance of academic qualifications for example in Computing as a means of securing skilled non- manual employment in service industries and this recognition of the changes in the facts of economic life may encourage these boys to take their education more seriously. That is: these boys will have constructed a different form of masculinity which could be confirmed not by rejection of school but by academic success and by demonstrable mastery of new information technologies. For example, in his 1990s studies of different social constructions of working class masculinity Mac An Ghaill distinguishes in this respect between "macho lads" [akin to Willis' "lads"]," academic achievers" and "new enterprisers" suggesting that only a declining minority of male working class pupils now see themselves as "macho lads." Nevertheless, it is possible that even some of these boys who do not see themselves as “macho lads will also sometimes be drawn into a "laddish" anti-school culture as a means of maintaining their status among their friends

  • Boys, Girls, and Achievement: Addressing the classroom issues Becky Francis [2000]

I have already referred in these teaching notes to this study in which Becky Francis presents several reasons for the improvement in girls’ educational achievement and she also discusses the reasons for the slower rate of increase in boys’ educational achievement. Becky Francis notes that in the 1990s boys educational progress was slower than for girls because many [although certainly not all] boys were still involved in the kind of macho male culture which had been described in the earlier studies of Hargreaves and Willis. She presents evidence from classroom observations and interviews of mainly working class boys and girls in upper and middle sets of London schools which showed that this kind of macho culture was still prevalent in the late 1990s. Thus, many boys still felt the need to maintain their social status among their peers via limited commitment to school work, with challenges to teacher authority, misbehaviour and “having a laugh “, all of which, in their eyes, confirmed their masculine identity whereas boys who took their academic studies seriously risked having their masculinity derisively called into question.

In her earlier work on primary schools Becky Francis had argued that even at an early age girls’ constructions of their feminine identities were likely to involve a commitment to “sensible and selfless“ behaviour [ by comparison with boys’ “silly and selfish” behaviour and she further argues that in secondary schools girls construct their femininity as involving greater maturity by comparison with boys although girls are not necessarily selfless now!. Girls who studied seriously were far less likely to be criticised by other girls and although girls also sometimes took their work less than seriously, their overall commitment to their studies was generally far greater than was the case with boys.

However, the situations which Becky Francis describes were not entirely straightforward. Boys who were strong, good looking or good at sport could take their studies seriously without losing credibility among their peers. Also while some boys still believed  that even if they gained few academic qualifications they would still be able to find unskilled work which required primarily physical strength, approximately 90% of the boys interviewed believed that academic qualifications were important  and many intended to enrol on Further Education or Higher Education courses although the proportion of boys applying for Higher Education was smaller than in the case of girls although  Becky Francis also notes that it is possible that among boys in lower sets [whom she did not observe or interview] the proportions of boys [and girls]] opting for Further and Higher Education might well have been lower.

Becky Francis’ main conclusion is that male anti-school attitudes are indeed a key factor restricting the educational progress of the male pupils involved in such behaviour but that such behaviour also restricts the progress of other pupils [male and female] who are keen to learn.


  • Lads and Ladettes in School: Gender and the Fear of Failure [2006]

Click here for Interview with Professor Carolyn Jackson on Lads and Ladettes and related matters MAY 2020

It has also been suggested that it is not only boys who are prone to rebellious anti- school behaviour and that it is important to discuss both boys’ and girls’ responses to education in terms of a spectrum of behaviour ranging from extreme conformity to extreme rebelliousness. The issue of female anti- school behaviour was addressed especially in Carolyn Jackson’s study Lads and Ladettes in School: Gender and a Fear of Failure [2006]

In this study Professor Carolyn Jackson analysed data from two research projects in which questionnaires and interviews were used to collect information from Year 9 students [both boys and girls] about their attitudes to school work. Based on these data Professor Jackson concludes that among both boys and girls an ”uncool to work discourse” was prevalent in all of the schools studied [ albeit with some variation] and that this discourse was dominant among girls as well as boys, among middle class as well as working class pupils  and that although it was prevalent among all ethnic groups there was some evidence that it was less dominant among Asian pupils than in other ethnic groups.

It is noted that the major sociological explanation for “laddish” behaviour is in terms of the acceptance among some boys  of a form of hegemonic masculinity in which masculinity is defined primarily in terms of sporting prowess, physical appearance, fashion sense and attractiveness to the opposite sex whereas an application to academic study is seen as an essentially feminine quality which is likely to lead to a spectrum of peer group responses varying from verbal derision to outright physical bullying . Thus, it is argued that boys are likely to neglect their academic studies for fear of ostracism by their peers. However, it is also argued that girls also may espouse a form of femininity which may encourage them to neglect their studies as a means of securing social acceptability among their peers.

Professor Jackson also uses insights form social psychology to argue that both boys and girls may appear to neglect their studies not only as a means of achieving social acceptability but also because they wish to hide what they perceive to be their limited academic abilities which might also undermine their status within their peer group. Thus, if a pupil gains poor marks after clearly having tried hard on a particular assignment this may impinge especially negatively on their sense of self-worth and upon their status within their peer groups so that appearing not to try hard can be seen as a defence mechanism with may protect the pupil’s sense of self-worth and social status. Appearing not to pay attention in class and claiming to have spent little time on homework can be seen as similar defence mechanisms.

Thus, both boys and girls may engage in “laddish” or “ladettish” behaviour because they wish to secure social acceptability within their peer group and/or because they wish to avoid the appearance of limited academic abilities.

However, from the 1970s onwards there have been significant changes in the patterns of UK employment which have reduced the availability of unskilled manual work which has led to an increased focus on the importance of academic qualifications as a means of securing well paid stable employment. School students have been made aware continually of the increased importance of educational qualifications and this will have encouraged them to prioritise their school studies more than in the past. Consequently, there is now an increasing tension for pupils between their desire for good qualifications and their desires both to achieve social acceptability among their peers and to avoid the public humiliation associated with signs of limited academic abilities.

Few pupils respond to this situation via complete identification with or complete opposition to academic study. Instead, most pupils respond by trying to balance these competing pressures. They may concentrate in class without appearing to do so; they may combine some low level misbehaviour with some work effort; they may work harder at home to offset time wasted in class and so on. However, it is highly likely that most pupils’ educational progress as restricted by their attempts to balance these competing pressures and Professor Jackson notes also that it may be easier to achieve such a balance. If one happens to be a good looking. personable and, in the case of boys, good at sport and also if one has the educational advantages often associated with a middle class background

  • Click here for I’m a Geek I am [Michael Ward 2014]

In this study Michael Ward investigates the educational experiences of a group of South Welsh boys who take their studies seriously but are derided as unmasculine conformists by their more rebellious class mates much as in Paul Willis 1977 study the conformist  “ear’oles” had been derided by Willis rebellious “lads” thus suggesting that in this case anti-school male macho attitudes to education continue to exist despite the deindustrialisation . The study does also document that, occasionally the conformist Geeks do feel the need to embark on bouts of heavy drinking but see this at least partly as preparation for preparation for their initiation into “student life”!

  • Which boys and Which Girls are falling Behind: Junin Yu, Ros McLellan and Liz Winter [2020[

Click here for interesting article  resister boys etc and Click here for link to full detailed technical article  and Click here  n for a very useful summary which it might be advisable to read first!

  • In this study, the authors emphasise that although it is true that on average girls outperform boys at GCSE level, when boys’ and girls’ attitudes to gender identity are considered in detail, some boys [Resister boys ] and some girls [ Relational girls and Tomboys ]  who reject traditional conceptions of male and female gender identity  re particularly likely to do well in Maths and English GCSE examinations  while some boys [Tough guys and Cool guys ] and some girls [Modern girls and Wild girls] who conform to traditional conceptions of gender identity  are more likely to underperform.

We can see some similarities here with the earlier work of Carolyn Jackson who also emphasised the variability of boys’ and girls’ attitudes to education, their behaviour, and the prospects of educational success.

  • Male and Female Subcultures: Summary

The early studies of David Hargreaves and Paul Willis focused almost entirely of the rebellious behaviour of some white working class males as severely restricting their educational progress whereas Phil Brown considered the whole spectrum of behaviour ranging from extreme conformity to extreme rebellion and claimed that most pupils occupied in intermediate position within the spectrum and that this applied to girls as well as boys. Tony Sewell indicted that among his sample of Afro-Caribbean boys many could be regarded as conformists but that varying forms of nonconformity existed which could undermine pupil progress.

Becky Francis pointed to the variability of both boys’ and girls’ attitudes and behaviour but presented evidence to the effect that in many cases boys’ macho culture was still likely to undermine their own education prospects and those of their class mates [male and female] who were keen to learn and gain academic qualifications.

Carolyn Jackson also noted the variability of both boys’ and girls’ behaviour and that although only a minority of boys and girls could be described as outright rebels, the low levels of commitment to their studies shown by boys and girls could be expected to undermine their academic progress. The most recent study by Junin Yu, Ros McLellan and Liz Winter [2020] also notes the variability of boys’ and girls’ attitudes to education which the authors argue is related to the students’ perceptions of gender identity.

It does seem reasonable to conclude that although both boys and girls show variable attitudes to their studies it is boys who are on average more likely than girls to engage in behaviour which might undermine their educational prospects.

Strategies for improving boys’ educational achievement

Click  here for review of Boys don’t try in which the authors make a wide range of suggestions for strategies to increase boys’ greater  engagement with learning

Click here for Supporting the education of white working class boys

Click here for programmes designed to improve boys’ educational achievement

As briefly mentioned above relative male educational underachievement has sometimes been linked with the development of a welfare dependent underclass. This is discussed in the final Section of these teaching notes.


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