What happens with boys?

An article by Marc Hortal Galí, published in el diari de l'educació on 9th March 2023.

These days our schools are full of activities on feminism, talks, posters of scientists, artists and athletes. The wave of feminism has long since entered the school and has helped to make it better. Much remains to be done, but schools and society today are more egalitarian spaces than they had been and must be valued.

However, we have a pending issue with the boys. I think that an important part are passive spectators of some activities and of a movement that hardly challenges them, while underneath ideas contrary to equality continue to circulate and grow. It is necessary to start focusing on boys if we really want to move towards an egalitarian society.

First, we must face the fact that boys have much more difficulties than girls in school and are in danger of feeling disengaged. Just to cite some statistics, in the 2022 6th grade primary assessment, girls outperformed boys in Catalan by 4.4 points, in Spanish by 3.2 points and in English by 4.8 points. In Mathematics, the traditional advantage that the boys had has been reduced to only 0.8 points. These differences have been maintained or have increased for years. Regarding reading comprehension, girls also outperform boys by forty points, 504 to 464, according to the PISA 2018 report.

In the selectivity there are many more girls than boys, 58% to 42%, according to statistics from last year, although the results obtained are very similar. Finally, there is also a big difference in the recognition of special educational needs. According to data from the Barcelona Education Consortium for the 20-21 academic year, 73% of students considered to be NESE type A are boys and only 27% are girls.

On the other hand, there seems to be a scientific consensus that boys mature intellectually and emotionally later than girls. It also seems clear that male and female socialization patterns remain very different. Boys are expected to be active, daring, and strong, while girls are more valued for being calm, collaborative, and prudent. Whether for these reasons or for others, it is clear that girls in general have more mastery of the skills that guarantee school success. Girls are better at sitting still, listening, reading and regulating emotions, and their school results reflect this.

We have empowered and recognized girls and this has been fantastic progress, but we haven't done enough to incorporate boys

In addition, boys are also usually the ones who cause the most discipline problems and those who suffer the most from their consequences. In boys, the pressure to impress the peer group seems to be stronger and often the way to do it is by challenging authority. Boys receive more sanctions and expulsions and miss more school activities. This causes a decrease in their personal and academic self-esteem and a greater disconnection from the school world.

In summary, while the majority of society continues to be “boy-friendly”, perhaps the school has become one of the few “girl-friendly” spaces that we have been able to create.

Another important element is the references that some of our students have. Schools offer more and more positive role models for girls: Marie Curie, Alexia Putellas or Frida Kahlo fill the halls, we celebrate the day of women in science and other similar activities, but we are deprived of referents that show us a different masculinity. We have empowered and recognized girls and this has been fantastic progress, but we haven't done enough to incorporate boys.

The references that the boys find in the networks continue to be traditional when not directly toxic or reactionary. The British Tik-Toker Andrew Tate, for example, famous in our country for a virtual confrontation with Greta Thumberg, accumulates millions of followers among young people and adolescents with a reactionary and misogynistic discourse. Young men disaffected by the system find Tate, who talks about cars, money and denigrates girls, an alternative referent. In the United Kingdom, the concern among educators about this phenomenon is such that many teachers and schools have begun to train to deal with these speeches in class. Surely it would not be difficult to find similar references in our environment.

In the classroom, boys also find it difficult to find references with whom to identify. The teaching profession is overwhelmingly female in infants and primary schools and more balanced, but also with a majority of females in secondary schools. Care tasks have traditionally been attributed to women and often what students see at school reinforces this idea. Without powerful male referents of proximity that refute this stereotype, we will not be able to advance.

Working seriously with the boys to incorporate them into the fight for equality and guarantee their school success is essential.

I think it is urgent to focus on the boys and face this challenge. There are no easy solutions or magic recipes, but I suggest three possible directions of work.

First of all, offer boys and girls alternative models and referents of masculinity. Showing that there are many other ways to be a man and that overcoming certain roles also frees them. Perhaps talk less about Greta Thumberg and more about examples like the footballer Héctor Bellerín who practices a vegan diet, only buys second-hand clothes as a criticism of consumerism and is a shareholder in one of the most sustainable football clubs in the world. If we try a little, it will not be difficult for us to find other examples.

Secondly, think of activities that challenge them and where they can calmly express their ideas and doubts, no matter how much they clash with the dominant discourse. We must work from what they feel and think, otherwise we run the risk that they will shut up while they continue to think the same thing underneath. We will be faced with clashing ideas and expressions but, as in any aspect of adolescence, it is better to listen and allow space for reflection than not to react with criticism and rejection.

Finally, we must improve in the management of coexistence and educational support. The boys' problems are much more structural than personal and it is necessary to work proactively. Much more prevention and support is needed and not just disciplinary sanctions. We must create spaces and moments in which boys can experience other roles and get out of the roles that everyone seems to expect them to play. Do not wait for conflicts to intervene.

Starting to work seriously with the boys to incorporate them into the fight for equality and guarantee their school success is essential to move towards an egalitarian society. Many countries and centres are beginning to look for solutions and strategies along this path. It is necessary that we also get as soon as possible.