Sunday, 21 July 2019

Girls do try and that might be where the problem lies

I really, really, really enjoyed ‘Boys Don’t Try’ by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts. For me, it’s a strength, is its unpicking of gender stereotypes and how our own prejudices can be part of the problem surrounding boys in education. Anyway, I was thinking about this book as my own daughters finished primary school this week and they also received their SATs results.

It is sad to say this, but my daughters’ experience of primary school has not been the positive experience I had hoped it to be. Married to a dedicated, hard-working and committed, primary school teacher, I know what a fantastic job primary schools do. In fact, I work with a lot of superb primary schools and primary school teachers. I know how great primary schools can and should be. They are fun, enjoyable and great places, but for us, as a family, we have been counting the days for when my daughters left their school. And, the saddest thing of all was that my daughters were doing the counting down themselves.  
So, where did it go wrong? It wasn’t really the systems. It wasn’t really the teachers. It wasn’t really the headteacher. However, I could possibly write a book on our experiences and dealings with the school. I think the problem stems with how they dealt with girls and different kinds of girls.  

As a dad of two daughters, I am starting to realise things about my daughters. Each one has two personas. A school persona and a home persona. They are both very different people, but really they are alike in so many ways. The school persona is polite, friendly, chatty and helpful. The home persona is well the opposite – there will be a day, when they read these blogs and I will be in trouble! The home persona will say something and challenge things when the school persona will not, because they are worried they’ll get told off. Life for them is the battle between these two versions of themselves. They’ll tell me about how unfair I am as a dad at home, but they would shudder doing the same to a teacher. There’s this constant friction.
My daughters are perfect ‘Blue Peter’ girls. They’d love to enter a competition. They’d love to save a hedgehog. They’d love to know about compost making. They just want to get involved. And, this is the other problem: ‘ the kind good girl type’. They get lumbered with everything. Here’s a new student. Meet the ‘Blue Peter’ girls. It became a joke in our house about how every new student, and I mean every new student, was paired up with my daughters when they arrived at school. Good girls were seen, and are often seen, as the problem solvers. We’ll just use Jenny because she’s kind and friendly. My daughters were that girl and they got fed up of it.    

I hate ‘Star of the Week’ with a passion. From my experience, it is rarely fair and it is often used to pander to the boys. Tom kicked a ball. Star. Peter ran a race. Star. The girls have to wait for their ‘annual turn’. Yes, it often felt like a tick box exercise. Everybody would get a go once a year, because that is fair. It seemed to my daughters that the naughty boys got the award more often than them. The girls who wouldn’t swear within fifty miles of a school would be overshadowed by the boys who have been known to swear openly. The girls could see what was going on. They worked hard and it was the naughty boys who got praised for something that was expected from girls. That made the one mention a year all that more important.
Popularity is an interesting thing. Most people want to be seen as being popular. However, I have seen how the ‘popularity factor’ has a damaging effect on girls. My daughters put themselves up for school council most years. They occasionally got it, because nobody else volunteered and the teachers selected the successful candidate. In the final year, the school made the decision a democratic decision and the school voted for school president. My daughters didn’t get the role, because the school voted for the popular student in a fair and democratic process. The whole process was transparently about popularity and that was made public. The whole process became about highlighting how my daughters were not as popular as the other students. A fair and democratic process? 

The popular kids are usually the extroverts and the outspoken and confident students. I have sat through numerous school plays and assemblies listening to the popular kids and seen the other children hide in the sides, because they haven’t got the confidence to say a line or two. School plays tend to draw attention to this. At times, I think we should rename school plays to ‘The Popular Extrovert Show’. Not really a microcosm of schools, in my opinion. My daughters would love to have a bigger part, but they are not going to shout out for one. They are good.  
My daughters left the school. They didn’t feel sad. They just wanted to have a better experience. As girls, I don’t think they had that opportunity. Not because someone intentionally went out of their way to do something, but because the wrong focus here or there can have long-lasting damage on a girl. Schools will not see the impact they have on girls, because of the two personas. The school persona smiles, while the home persona cries. There’s so much more to girls’ behaviour and I think we neglect them heavily.

We have growing issues in secondary schools and I think we need to explore the girls' behaviour, just as much as the boys. Nationally, we have a problem with boys, but that doesn’t mean we need to have the spotlight solely on the boy.

I am just a dad trying to understand things and I happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood or misinterpreted something. 

Thanks for reading,


Update: 18/12/19 

Dear Reader, 

Last night I attended an Advent service at my daughters' school. During the performance, one of my daughters sung a solo. A solo she never had the opportunity before.  A solo that she was incredibly worried about. A solo she never thought she'd have the chance to do because of other students. 

A solo she smashed. She was brilliant. In fact, she was praised by many for doing it.  

When I wrote my original blog in July, I had people tell me stories of how their lovely, quiet daughters had difficulties in primary schools, but flourished and thrived in secondary schools. They were right for my daughters, but it does raise some interesting ideas. Are we neglecting a silent majority of children in primary schools? Boys can be vocal. Attention seeking girls are certainly vocal. Introvert girls aren't. 

When do the quiet, good girls get noticed? Is it when they don't have friends? Is it when they do a poor piece of work? They don't scream for attention the rest of the time. They are relied on. They are dependable and loyal, but they are largely forgotten. 

I cannot tell you how my daughters have transformed since primary school. They have become confident, friendly and outgoing. They didn't have a major personality change, but they feel valued. They feel noticed. They have a voice. They feel they can do anything. They are motivated. They are driven. But, they do that will a smile on their face. Quietly. 

So, what am I trying to say? Well, simply: primary schools need to look at how their quiet girls and boys fit into the school life. Children need to feel part of a community. What if we are simply supporting an alienating experience for young people in our care? We aren't doing it on purpose, but it is the by-product of caring for some children more than others. Maybe care is the wrong word. Maybe focus is the right word. 

I have seen, first-hand, the difference it can have on quiet students when they have a sense of place and community. When the feel part of something. When they connect. 

Thanks for reading, 



  1. A superb insight and so so true. My son is leaving first school (he's in a weird middle school system) and everything is geared around what you said. Extroverts and challenging boys are pushed to the fore. In my year 7 class I he openly ignore the boys a mixture of the two toys and actively promote the lovely quiet girls. Think we need a massive cultural shift to bring good gets you here. (wider experiences, more opportunities, etc) but it my op that all the time models out there are blustering fools. Sad, so sad.

  2. This was such an interesting read, particularly as my daughter is about to start primary school. I also teach in secondary, and what you describe as happening in primary we often see in secondary too.
    I agree we need a culture shift, and this will come from rejecting all forms of gender stereotyping which start from a very young age. The 'boys will be boys' and 'girls need to be quiet and polite' attitudes are immensely damaging but all pervasive in our society. This is seen in how people talk to boys and girls differently, the adjectives used to describe them, as well as in marketing, clothes designs, toys, books etc.
    Generally society has much higher expectations of behaviour of girls than of boys, pretty much as soon as they are up and walking - and this is clearly the case in the school you describe. This then extends into adulthood, where a loud or strong woman in some work places is pushy or bossy, whereas in a man this is seen as him being authoritative and a leader. The tide is starting to turn on this, but more needs to be done, as you say, to address this in schools at all levels.

  3. As another secondary teacher, I have seen exactly what you have described. The nice girls often carry this through, find other nice girls and grow in confidence. My worry are the nice, quiet, helpful boys who struggle to find their place socially - often branded as loners or weirdos when in fact are just exceeding behaviour expectations to get their praise.

  4. I really enjoyed this post- spot on and worthwhile to read as a secondary school teacher reflecting on how I champion my girls in a boy dominant school. Will be sharing with my department this week!


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