Gender and Educational Achievement: Part Three

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


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

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 . What factors might restrict the rate of educational improvement of male students?

In the documents  on Social Class and Educational Achievement it was shown that even 30 or 40 years ago many working class boys were likely to develop anti-school subcultures as a general aspect of working class culture [as, for example, in the Willis study] or in response to streaming within the schools [as, for example, in the Hargreaves study] or as a result of both working class cultural factors and school organisational factors [as ,for example,  in Phil Brown's study]. It may be that these working class male anti-school subcultures help to explain relative male working class underachievement but before we consider such arguments in more detail we must note also that female students outperform male students at GCSE level in all social classes which means that we also need an explanation for relative male middle class underachievement . You may click here and then scroll to page 45 for DCFS [now DFE] data on the relationships between gender, social class and GCSE attainment in 2004. I have not been able to find more recent data but one would think that such patterns continue to exist. [New link added August 2012]

Let us first consider some of the arguments which focus primarily on relative male working class underachievement.

  1.   It was suggested that, for some working class boys , education was essentially an irrelevance because they hoped in any case to find the kind of physically demanding, unskilled manual work which would confirm their masculinity but which required few educational qualifications. Contrastingly  academic study and non-manual employment were associated with femininity and therefore dismissed as unsuitable in every  respect.
  2. Also within the anti-school subcultures, male pupils gained status among their peers not through respect for school rules and hard academic work but through disruptive behaviour of various kinds which ultimately would restrict their own academic progress.
  3. It must be recognised that the relative decline of manufacturing industry since the 1980s has resulted in a decline in both unskilled and skilled manual work yet a significant minority of working class boys may still hope   for the kind of physically demanding unskilled work which is often no longer available  and these boys may still be trying to gain status with their peers via disruptive, "laddish", "macho" anti-school behaviour.
  4. 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 5 times more likely than girls to be permanently excluded from school.
  5. It has been argued that some boys are  therefore experiencing a crisis of masculinity in that they have as yet 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.
  6. However 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. Nowadays increasing numbers of working class boys aim to enrol on Higher Education courses and many more will surely have 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 academic success and by demonstrable mastery of new information technologies. [ 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."
  7. Nevertheless it is likely that even some of these boys will also be drawn into a "laddish" anti-school culture as a means of maintaining their status among their friends.
  8. Remember , however, that we have also to explain relative male middle class underachievement and to assess whether middle class males are more likely than middle class females to be drawn into "middle class variants" of  anti-school culture. Once again you may click here and then scroll to page 45 for DCFS [now DFE] data on the relationships between gender, social class and GCSE attainment in 2004. I have not been able to find more recent data but one would think that such patterns continue to exist. [New link added August 2012]
  9. Additionally 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. Yet there is evidence that girls have  been more heavily socialised from an early age by parents and teachers to read 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.
  10. It has been argued even fairly 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.
  11. 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.
  12. There may be some truth in the two previous  points   but it is also the case that, nowadays, teachers spend huge amounts of time on the investigation of boys' relative underachievement which may undermine the notions that they fail to take "laddish" behaviour seriously  and that negative labelling is still widespread. However there are also recent studies which suggest that negative labelling of both male and female working class students is still widespread as was shown in previous documents on social class differences in educational achievement.
  13. 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.

Click here for a recent relevant BBC item  suggesting the possibility that primary school teaching strategies should be reconsidered so as to improve boys' educational prospects.



1. Are male examination results getting worse?

2 .Whose average examination results are better: middle class males' or working class females'?

3.What do you understand by the term "laddish, macho, anti-school culture"?

4.How may changes in the occupational structure have affected male attitudes to education?

5.How would you explain the facts that although male and female GCSE pass rates  in Maths and Sciences are very similar, females out-perform males very considerably in English at GCSE level?

6. In your opinion , do teachers take "laddish" behaviour seriously enough?


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