Boys not the Problem; Schools Treating Boys Like Girls Is the Problem

July 29, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

In yesterday’s post about the report on the gap between boys’ and girls’ pre-school reading and writing achievement, I offered two possible causes the problem. The first was fatherlessness that’s known for affecting boys worse than it does girls. The report by the U.K. charity Save the Children made no effort to analyze data on children’s achievement levels for that variable. That is, there’s nothing in the report comparing boys and girls of single-parent families to those with two parents in the home.

My second suggestion for what may be at the root of boys’ underachievement at age five stemmed from the fact that, in general, boys brains tend to mature more slowly than do girls’, particularly in areas related to reading and language acquisition. That would mean that, by asking them to do the same reading and writing tasks at age five that girls do at age five, we’re setting them up to fail. By doing that, we in turn promote frustration in boys with the very concept of school. To them, their first experience with school is very likely not a positive one; it’s hard, boring and in any case, they can’t do the work. Sound welcoming?

I cited Dr. Leonard Sax on a longitudinal study, published in 2007, by the National Institute of Mental Health that found that the language centers of boys’ brains were, by age five, about where girls’ brains are at age three or three-and-a-half. I quoted Sax’s book Boys Adrift thus:

It now appears that the language areas of the brain in many five-year-old boys look like the language areas of the brain of the average three-and-a-half-year-old girl….

Trying to teach a five-year-old boy to learn to read and write may be just as inappropriate as it would be to try to teach three-year-old girls to read and write…

Asking five-year-old boys to learn to read – when they’d rather be running around or playing games – may be the worst possible introduction to school, at least for some boys.

Now we have the estimable Karen Woodall to back me up (Huffington Post UK, 7/20/16). Woodall is one of the U.K.’s foremost authorities on families and divorce and she’s none too happy about the plight of British boys in school and the reception the Save the Children report received. Amazingly, it seems that much of the response gloried in the fact that boys are at risk in early education.

One teacher interviewed by the BBC responded to the report this way:

‘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.

It’s not exactly uplifting to hear a teacher of pre-school kids refer to boys as “the problem.” Shouldn’t she rather view boys and girls as different, with differing abilities, particularly at that age? After all, how good a teacher can she be if she doesn’t understand the basics of boys’ and girls’ brains and what that means for learning?

That interview came in a segment on the report that lasted just one minute and 37 seconds, virtually all of which was taken up by the thoughts of a single five-year-old girl. That’s how seriously the BBC takes the urgent problem the Save the Children report highlighted. Save the Children called for immediate and drastic reform, but one of the major influences on public opinion in the U.K. decided boys’ failure in school is no big deal.

Woodall doesn’t agree.

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.

Woodall points out that treating boys the same as girls at an age when their ability to learn is vastly different amounts to discrimination against the little lads.

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.

And, much as I said yesterday, the reality is that girls and boys mature at different rates.

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 answer to that last question is that a lot of people are doing that work. The only problem is that elites in government, the communications media and pop culture are so caught up in the joy of denigrating anything male that little if anything gets done to counter trends that anyone can see are detrimental to both individuals and the whole of society. The entire approach to boys and men is so dysfunctional at so many levels – family courts, education, suicide, homelessness, victimization by domestic violence, crime, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. – and our societal response to those problems so minimal, that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a society in decline. The history of this time, if written accurately, will use metaphors like that of the canary in the coal mine and marvel that, though the canary was dead, everyone went on working as before.

People like Woodall at least, are doing their best to call attention to the dying bird.

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.

Woodall of course aims her words at the BBC and the countless others happy to dismiss every problem faced by men and boys. If there’s such a thing as journalistic malpractice, the BBC’s take on the Save the Children report is an example. If there’s such a thing as governmental malpractice, we’re living in the middle of it.




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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

#boys, #girls, #SavetheChildren, #education

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