The Moral Panic About Boys ‘Underachievement’ in Education

Researchers in the Gender and Education Association take a critical feminist approach to the issue of boys’ underachievement.

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A news headline from 2016 – Is this just a ‘moral panic’?


They argue that boys’ underachievement has long been a feature of the UK education system, but it has recently become a ‘moral panic’ (In 1996, the UK’s Chief Inspector of Schools called it “one of the most disturbing problems facing the education system”) which has arisen because of the following three reasons:

  • First, deindustrialisation in the UK has led to the decline of traditional manufacturing jobs, and so there are fewer jobs available for those with few or no educational qualifications. As a result, young working-class men who leave school with relatively few qualifications have now become a ‘problem’.
  • Second, feminism has had an impact on girls’ education and career aspirations, and so women are advancing into technical and professional jobs which were previously male dominated.
  • Third, examination performance is increasingly central to policy, with Britain ranked against other countries, and failing students matter more.

They argue that focusing on boys’ underachievement is a problem because:

  • It ignores other differences between young people, particularly of ethnicity and class, which actually have a far greater affect on results.
  • Since girls are on top, there’s no space to tackle the problems that girls have in education. including teenage pregnancy, sexualisation and bullying in friendship groups.

Finally, they point out that some of the strategies adopted to deal with the ‘problem with boys’ are unlikely to work:

  • For example, there has been a big push to recruit more male teachers, particularly in primary schools, to act as role models for their male pupils. Yet research shows that the gender of the teacher has no effect on how well boys achieve in school.
  • Similarly, to solve the gender gap in reading policymakers have suggested giving boys adventure stories and factual books. But research shows that boys have a more positive attitude to reading when all pupils are encouraged to read as wide a range of books as possible.

4 thoughts on “The Moral Panic About Boys ‘Underachievement’ in Education”

  1. Thanks Karl,

    I have an underlying agenda here aswell. When I am Inspecting Schools in Wales, we always look at the books. The pupils exercise books reveal many aspects of what is going on in the classrooms. However, over time the main conversation has centred around how compliant the teacher is to the marking policy and how consistent the department and the school are in ensuring that compliance.
    We seem to be measuring what is measurable , rather than what is important. So as a Nation we have at least agreed that the reason for education is to achieve these 4 purposes:_
    The four purposes are that all children and young people will be:

    Ambitious, capable learners who are ready to learn throughout their lives.
    Enterprising, creative contributors who are ready to play a full part in life and work.
    Ethical, informed citizens who are ready to be citizens of Wales and the world.
    Healthy, confident individuals who are ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

    How can anybody disagree ?

    So at the tender age of 56, with all this experience I still want a revoloution in education 🙂

    The six Areas of Learning and Experience (curriculum areas) are:

    Expressive Arts
    Health and Well-being
    Languages, Literacy and Communication
    Mathematics and Numeracy
    Science and Technology

    These Areas of Learning and Experience will apply from the age of 3-16


    I need to prove that they are not needed and in some cases (some boys) a barrier to learning.

    Are you with me ?

    Thanks Martin 🙂

  2. That’s a very interesting perspective thanks for sharing. I will have a dig around for some studies what you say makes intuitive sense. NB I’m sure the gender difference in GSCEs leaped when coursework was introduced which supports your point to an extent (nice neat tidy work being something girls are generally better at).

    Not sure sure if digital learning would benefit boys more…. so many distractions are possible!

  3. • Hello all,
    I am a 56-year-old father of 4 high achieving boys. I have been working in Secondary education since 1987. I have been Deputy Head in 2 Secondary Schools since 2008. I have been in Senior Leadership since 2001.
    I have always had a “feeling” that the lack of men in teaching was affecting boys’ achievement. I have been involved in Quality Assurance of education for some time and the Success Criteria used have been dominated with the Graduate entry route.
    “Successful” pupils have been successful because of the criteria for success they have been judged on.
    This has been influenced to a great degree by female educators bringing their own experiences of what good schooling should look like.
    Exercise books are just one example.
    Question; are neat exercise books a measure of success in Good Knowledge, Skills and Understanding?
    I have many more small examples of bias towards neat and tidy students, well-presented students, compliant students, quiet students, polite students, emotionally intelligent students, clean students, STUDENTS LIKE ME!
    Without wishing to gender stereotype you can see the issue 🙂
    I am interested in “The exercise book as a barrier to boys learning” and would welcome any literature or studies I could refer to. We have an opportunity during C19 to move towards digital learning and away from exercise books and I believe this could narrow the learning gap between the genders.
    Thanks, Martin Davis

  4. The belief boys should be strong allows aggressive treatment by parents teachers peers others from infancy so they will be tough. There is much less mental/emotional/verbal interaction/support for fear of coddling. This creates high maintained layers of average stress for boys (new thought will send to all). These layers remain in the mind taking away real mental energy leaving much less mental energy for academics so they will have to work harder to receive the same mental reward. This treatment creates more social/emotional distance from others/adults. The total treatment creates higher average stress hurting learning/motivation more activity (not genetic) higher muscle tension hurting handwriting/motivation much lower social vocabulary/communication skills from both much less communication and social/emotional distance from fear. It creates lags in communication girls are given daily. The high stress creates activity for stress relief not genetics. This creates higher muscle tension which hurts handwriting motivation. The total treatment hurts reading/motivation which requires both a high social vocabulary/knowledge of syntax and low average stress something boys through harsh less support are increasingly weak in. This treatment creates more social/emotional from others/adults. It creates lags in communication girls are given daily. The high stress creates activity for stress relief not genetics. This creates higher muscle tension which hurts handwriting motivation. The effect with false genetic models creates more failure and hopelessness. To make it tougher boys are given love honor feelings of self-worth only on condition of achievement. This was designed to keep Male esteem low and be willing to give their lives in war for love honor from society. Males not achieving are given ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not given for fear of coddling and false belief in genetics. Many boys falling behind turn their attention to sports and video games for small measures of love honor not received in school. The belief boys should be strong and false belief in genetics create denial of the harsh treatment which is creating the low academics low esteem and other problems for boys. This is not about more openness from boys it is about society allowing aggressive treatment from infancy so boys feel much wariness toward parents teachers who freely use aggressive treatment for any sign of weakness. This is condoned by society. This problem is affecting all male children but the lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in lower areas the much more amplified the treatment given male children by parents/teachers.
    There is a wrinkle to this. There are a “very few boys” given more stable correct support from some families which will enable those boys to succeed in school. This enables those boys to do well -and receive love and honor from others which they must continually do to continue to earn that love and honor. This then becomes a drug for those boys which drives them to continually achieve in different ways in school. However the vast majority of boys who do not receive that support will not do well in school and early on go into other areas to generate love and honor such as sports military other.
    As girls we are given much support and care by parents teachers peers. As girls we are treated better and enjoy much support from society. Since we as girls are given by differential treatment much mental social/emotional support verbal interaction and care this creates the opposite outcome for girls. We receive love honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things. We have lower average stress for ease of learning. We enjoy much freedom of expression from much protection by society. We enjoy lower muscle tension for ease in writing motivation to write. We enjoy much positive trust/communication from parents teachers and support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. Now with girls and women taking over many areas of society we enjoy more lavishing of love honor from society while boys and men are now failing more and are given more ridicule and abuse by society. Mind you this is now coming from girls and women using our still protected freedoms of expression and more with false feelings of superiority.
    As for girls there is a wrinkle also. We are given love and honor simply for being girls. This allows us to choose less than top planes of success and still find wonderful planes of innersecurity. We are not as driven. However as the middle class continues to drop there will be fewer boys able to receive the bare adequate support to be successful academically. Also more girls will begin “choosing to go into those higher fields by choice. This will slowly allow women to begin taking over those higher fields just as they have already taken over the other fields. Much more from learning theory.

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