Review by Peter Hall

Assistant headteacher, Beacon Academy, Crowborough, East Sussex

7 Apr 2019, 5:00

Book

Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools

By Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts

Publisher

Routledge

ISBN 10

This book opens with stark facts about the gender gap – not only in school, but in society: 96 per cent of our prison population is male.

The two schools-based authors write chapters in turn. In chapter one, Mark Roberts tells of his early success as a teacher with a reputation for teaching boys well and describes his popular classroom strategies.

One such idea was competition – in an English class he would gather the boys in teams, each team would create a piece of writing and then “knock out” others in a World Cup of writing. Or he would play to their perceived strengths and interests and find pieces of writing for the boys to analyse based on football and boxing.

As a reader, it’s a scary moment when it dawns that these strategies were doing more harm than good. The World Cup of Writing created more losers than winners. The sports text reinforced stereotypes of masculinity and prevented students from building cultural capital. In one colleague’s maths lesson, the boys remembered far more about pizza toppings than the formula for calculating the area of a circle.

Competition is questioned through the fear it can also engender: “If I don’t try, then I can’t fail,” “If I write nothing, then I’ve written nothing wrong.”

We are forced to reflect on our own practice to see just how much we are doing that might be just as damaging.

Here are “the rules” as described by one boy: “Never put your hand up, try not to answer questions correctly, don’t hand in homework, avoid showing enthusiasm for learning”. Ouch. I’ve taught boys today who appear to be working under these rules. This book goes a long way towards providing many solutions.

This book is easy to read, but hard to listen to

Each chapter hammers home another area of our failure. We’re forced to dwell on the failure, re-live the stories and problems, and then we are treated to a well-explained and carefully written summary of research in the area, before getting solutions. These are not ground-breaking – they are simple and straightforward – but each is something we are (mostly) not doing well at the moment.

Take the chapter on sexism. Matt Pinkett places this in the frame of what the authors call “non-tender masculinity” (a rebranding of the opposite of toxic masculinity, which they consider unhelpful). He lists some unacceptable behaviours that colleagues have reported and offers a sample lesson for discussing the ethics of pornography with a class. He then reviews government guidance on the topic, looks at reasons why sexist behaviour might not be challenged in schools (teachers have become immune to it, they’re unsure where the boundaries lie, there’s a lack of support from senior leadership teams). Pinkett concludes with case studies of how to deal well with incidents of sexism or degrading language, such as students using the word “rape” or “paedo” in class.

Other chapters look at mental health, violence and aggression, or the problems caused by “banter” – offering ways to develop more positive relationships in lessons.

This book is easy to read, but hard to listen to. I’m reassured by the solutions, but frustrated by all the mistakes we’ve been making for so long.

There is something for everyone here, whether you read this as a classroom teacher, determined to do better for all the students in every class, or as a headteacher more worried about whole-school strategy, vision and ethos. This is a call to action, to a brave new world where boys are nurtured and developed. Without putting the blame on schools for the current situation, the authors are clear about just how much good we can do for society if we can do better with our boys in school.

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