Latest Issue

The bias against boys

The feminisation of society is partly to blame for the problem of boys doing badly at school

By Charlotte Leslie   December 2007

Parents have long suspected it, school reports have hinted at it and teachers have often accepted it. Now the statistics show it: school is a girl’s world. Research published by the Bow Group think tank this summer revealed that boys fall dramatically behind in the key disciplines from the beginning of their school career—and then carry on falling. As young men, a significant minority fall out of school into crime, young offender institutes and sometimes prison.

For a government intent on extending the learning experience to 18, these statistics should make sobering reading. The Bow Group’s figures show that at the age of seven, 9 per cent more girls hit government targets than boys. By 14, the difference is 15 per cent. Only 52 per cent of boys get five good GCSEs, compared with 61 per cent of girls. And last year, 44 per cent of girls stayed on to do A-levels, against 36 per cent of boys—more school seems to be the last thing boys want.

The distaste of boys for the school environment becomes more apparent if you look at behaviour and attendance records. Last year, boys were responsible for 79 per cent of expulsions and 72 per cent of suspensions. That’s over 250,000 boys who had such severe problems with school that they were thrown out.

This is bad news for everyone involved in trying to raise educational standards. But it seems clear to me that the problem with boys at school is a symptom of a bigger issue: the rapid feminisation of developed societies. There are three main ways in which what one might call traditional male virtues have been downgraded or delegitimised. They are the rising importance of emotions and feeling in modern life, the delegitimisation of risk and competition, and the declining relevance of physical strength.

First, the world of education and, increasingly, of work requires more “soft” interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence than in the past. I do not want to venture too far into the debate about whether female superiority in this area is cultural or “hard-wired,” but it is, for now, true that average performance in the “fact” world and the “feeling” world differs markedly between the sexes. Simon Baron-Cohen at the Cambridge Autism Research Centre has even suggested that autism is an “exaggeration” of the normal male brain.

Second, the explosion of the litigation culture and the tyranny of health and safety rules in the education system discourage risk-taking and physical competitiveness, and this bears down more heavily on male forms of behaviour.

Finally, muscle doesn’t count for much any more. Changing technology and work patterns mean that men’s historical advantage—their physical strength—is increasingly an obsolete currency in the workplace. This is felt with special keenness in parts of the country formerly dominated by heavy industry, where there are a high number of underperforming schools.
These factors comprise the three-way assault on male virtues: feeling over fact, safety over risk and the downgrading of physical strength. There has been reluctance to broach the subject of the difference between males and females for fear of being accused of gender stereotyping. But we are now seeing the tangible results of that inhibition.

It is not by chance that girls are staying on at school more than boys. The trend towards exam questions that concentrate on subjective interpretations over factual analysis, favours girls. The anti-risk culture is manifest in the introduction of endlessly retakeable modules. The proliferation of coursework tends to favour conscientious girls over boys who prefer the one-off risk of the exam.

If we are going to force children to stay at school until they are 18, we have to think hard about what those extra years will entail, otherwise the difference in achievement between boys and girls will only become more ingrained. Any extra compulsory school years must start to reset the gender imbalance. We need a greater appreciation of analytical skill, more competition and rewards for risk-taking, and more development of sport and practically demanding qualifications.
If our world is becoming more feminised and masculinity is being recast, that’s all the more reason to give boys the best start we can. Particularly for anyone who believes in the equality of the sexes.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to

More From Prospect