Why so some boys underachieve in education? Research over the last decade clearly indicates that some boys are not fulfilling expectations in school and fail in their GCSE’s if five subject passes at C grade is used as the criteria. While boys from some ethnic backgrounds are doing well, some are clearly falling behind and hindering their lifestyle progress as they get older. Why is this so?


The old status quo is changing as there is now a less patricidal new social order. In many senses identity is fluid and gender is becoming irrelevant. Meritocracy is possible and there are numerous positive female images via ubiquitous media. IT and other forms of technology have emancipated women e.g. IVF and contraception.


In the 1960s -70s there were concerns about girls underachieving in the education system. Girls were taking lower status subjects and were less likely to go to university than boys who were taking maths, physics and chemistry. Concerns changed in the 90s when boys began to fail and girls were succeeding. But is this a fair analysis? Are boys really failing or are girls just succeeding at a faster rate? Has the education system changed to suit girls more? Are all boys underachieving? Or have girls prospects changed?


 “Workers may win the Welfare State, but this provides healthy workers. Women or workers may win access to education but this provides a trained and ideologically complicit workforce. Despite various qualifications of the role of the state, this position represents a fairly commonplace piece of Marxist functionalism… It is known in advance that all state agencies really aid the Bourgeoisie, and all the equivocations of “relative autonomy” etc … cannot escape this initial functionalist premise.” An Extract from the book ‘Gender, Class and Education’ by Stephen Walker and Len Barton


Boys are getting better in the education system as time goes on; yet they are progressing at a much slower rate than girls. Working Class boys do particularly bad in the education system and this is situation is becoming increasingly worse.  This could be because working class boys want to get out of school and dig into “Mans Work.” However, there has been a significant decline in manual labour jobs that require hardly any or no formal grades as machines have replaced the jobs normally associated with men. This has led to a worrying unemployment rate for the unskilled in developed nations.


The modern job often requires some form of good education and social skills, particularly sensitivity. This doesn’t fit in with the working class boy’s mentality of masculine jobs; and having restricted speech would impede their social skills.  Men’s roles in society are changing as well. Where once there was a time a man would go out and work hard to bring home his family the money, it is now fairly common for the man to abandon his family and this subsequently leaves any male children in these families without a male role model and thus jeopardises the normal working class masculine identities.


Working class boys are now growing up surrounded by insecurity and vulnerability seeing other working class men fail in their local community and watching the few working class jobs disappear. Due to this they seem to lose their normal masculine look. Some boys claim a new identity at school and this is where we see Willis’s “Lads” theory come into effect. The boys reject school and form their own sub-culture. They call the average middle class boys insulting names and consider their work as “sissy” work. A boy once said “The work you do here is girls’ work. It’s not real work” according to Mac an Ghaill.


The “lads” and their peers all contribute to their overall failure in the education system, which is what Willis’s theory explains to us.


The correspondence theory of truth states that something (for example, a proposition or statement or sentence) is rendered true by the existence of a fact with corresponding elements and a similar structure. The theory maintains that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world, and whether it accurately describes (i.e. corresponds with) that world. There is a close correspondence between the social relationships in the classroom and those in the workplace, (Bowles & Gintis). It is applied to gender because some boys seem to be neglected in school and therefore do not have good relationships with teachers whereas most girls do. This will affect boys as they will not be able to have good relationships with their future colleagues.   


In 1989 28% of boys achieved 5 or more A*- C at GCSE compared to 31% of girls. By 1996 both groups had got better but girls had a 9% better percentage than boys. By 2002 this had gone up to a 10% difference in favour of girls.


The same trend was occurring at A-level or the equivalent of it. In 1995 27% of boys achieved 2 or more A-levels compared to 33 % of girls. By 1998 this had gone up to a 7% difference in favour of girls. In 2001 33% of boys compared to 42% of girls achieved 2 or more A-levels. The number of students in higher education has risen massively in the last 30 years. In 1970 400,000 boys and 200,000 girls went into higher education. By 1990 girls were starting to catch up with boys. Just over 600,000 boys went into higher education compared with 500,000 girls. By 1997 girls had overtaken boys and by 2001 girls had 200,000 more students in higher education.


Over the last 30 years both groups have improved vastly in the grades and participation of school. However, girls have improved at a quicker rate. This could be due to a variety of reasons including the fact that school is more suited to girls because of lack of male teachers, set out of classrooms and the way subjects are taught. Also girls now aspire to get good grades to go to university and get a good job. Girls used to have their life set out for them as housewives but now they are becoming more and more independent.


Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex

Related Posts

  • The educational performance of girls has improved significantly since the 1980’s. They have overtaken boys at every level from primary to higher education. Overall, the…
  • Girls are now appearing to have a higher ability to succeed in education than boys in today’s schooling system. There are many issues concerning this…
  • There are many varied reasons and theories to explain why girls do better in the educational system when compared to boys. Girls tend to outperform…