Until the late 1980’s, most sociological literature focused on the underachievement of girls. Girls were less likely to pursue A levels and consequently to enter higher education. However, in the early 1990’s, it was argued that girls had begun to outperform boys at most levels of the education system.
The main sociological focus today therefore is on the underachievement of boys. Epstein et al.(1999) state that boy’s underachievement is not something new, but in the past was not a worrying trend for two reasons: working-class boys used to move easily into jobs without good qualifications in the days when sons followed fathers into mines, factories, etc. And the structural and cultural barriers preventing female’s access to high-status jobs and the pressure on women to become wives and mothers, etc. meant that males always achieved better paid jobs in the long run. However, today Epstein notes that governments are anxious about large numbers of unemployed young men because they are a potential threat to social order.
There are many reasons why boys are under-achieving in education. In some schools, the extent of boys’ underachievement has become so serious that twice as many girls are getting five GCSE’s grades A-C. It is estimated that by the age of 16, nearly 40% of boys are ‘lost’ to education. Some sociologists have suggested that the fault lies with teachers. Studies of classroom interaction and the relationship between pupils and teachers suggest that teachers are not as strict with boys as with girls. It is claimed that teachers tend to have lower expectations of boys, e. g.they expect work to be late, to be untidy and boys to be disruptive. Emphasis in the past has been on excluding such boys rather than looking for ways to motivate them.
Consequently a culture of low achievement evolved among boys and was not acted upon because the emphasis in schools for many years was to make education more relevant and interesting for girls. Boys’ performance in schools is a complex issue. This policy issue of boys’ underachievement can be understood in many different ways. The issue can be framed in terms of human capital, class inequality, equal opportunities or social justice.
Links can be drawn between the low educational attainment of some boys and the low employment rates of some young men. There is also for some boys an antagonism between educational attainment, even attentiveness, and the performance and achievement of particular and valued masculinities. Mac An Ghaill (1996) argues that working-class boys are experiencing a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Their socialisation into traditional masculine identity has been undermined by the decline of traditional men’s jobs in manufacturing and primary industries such as mining.
Mass unemployment found in working-class areas means that boys are no longer sure about their future role as men. This confusion about their future role may lead working-class boys to conclude that qualifications are a waste of time because there are only limited opportunities in the job market. The future looks bleak and without purpose so they don’t see the point in working hard. They may temporarily resolve this crisis by constructing delinquent or anti-school subcultures, which tend to be anti-learning.
Research evidence indicates that boys appear to gain street credibility and status in such cultures for not working. In 1994 Panorama’s “The Future is Female” by Hannon suggested that with more opportunities for women in the work place, a change in the female ideology and with a fairer education system women simply passed the boys. “Boys are not actually doing worse than they have done in the past, they are improving, but girls improvement outstrips boys” Hannon, The Future is Female, 1994.
With father opportunities of women it is easy to realise the origins of the current masculinity crisis, as there is no set role. Boys are no longer thought of as maturing later and comfortably walking into sustainable education. Instead men are expected to work hard throughout education to reap the rewards later but this is against the gender stereotype portrayed through the agents of socialisation. With this problem the “new man” was created producing a crisis for men on which to evolve into.
Both published in socialisation agents boys have the problem of evolving into fulfilling the “laddish stereotype” or one in which they draw away from the idea that it is not male to work hard in education. Other sociologists have pointed to the feminine culture, which surrounds younger children as a possible influence on male under- achievement. Children, both male and female, may equate learning and therefore schooling with femininity. As boys grow up, they identify with more masculine role models and may reject academic learning and skills such as presentation and reading as feminine.
Boys and reading and boys and literature are frequently mentioned by teachers as trouble spots in educating boys. Many young boys belong to anti-learning sub-cultures and they would therefore be deemed as ‘un-cool’ if they achieved well in school especially in a ‘girly’ subject such as English. Many boys don’t try to achieve at school simply to conform to their group’s norms and values. If their group doesn’t value education then they won’t. They believe it is more valuable to be popular and ‘in’ with the right crowd as opposed to achieving in school and education.