Research School Network: ‘Troublesome boys’ and ​‘compliant girls’ (Jones and Myhill, 2002): A summary of the findings A short summary of the key findings from one of the most referenced studies into gender underperformance.

‘Troublesome boys’ and ​‘compliant girls’ (Jones and Myhill, 2002): A summary of the findings

A short summary of the key findings from one of the most referenced studies into gender underperformance.

Earlier this week, Chris Runeckles (Assistant Director of Durrington Research School) led a webinar on Addressing Gender Underperformance”, exploring the national picture regarding the achievement gap, questioning the extent to which teachers subconsciously amplify stereotypes and encouraging us to reflect/​audit our own language and behaviours in relation to the gender gap. You can watch a recording of the webinar here if you didn’t catch it live. In his session Chris referred to a variety of academic sources including a paper produced by Susan Jones and Debra Myhill entitled “‘Troublesome boys’ and compliant girls’: gender identity and perceptions of achievement and underachievement”. To sit alongside Chris’s webinar this blog will aim to provide a summary of Jones and Myhill’s study and findings.


The authors begin by reflecting on how, since the 1990’s at least, underachievement in UK schools has been viewed through the lens of a gender issue and that despite branches of focus looking at the role of socio-economic status and ethnic minority status on achievement, that the thrust” of policy initiatives in recent years has been strongly directed at the under achievement of boys. Later in their concluding statements they argue that underachieving boys have been the focus of attention in the underachievement debate so persistently and for so long that they have taken on an identity and branch of research all to themselves. Other authors referenced in the paper make similar comments noting that the recent focusing of the debate upon boys has rendered many girls, particularly underachieving ones, invisible. *1

The Study

The study of Jones and Myhill was designed to raise questions about teachers’ perceptions of underachievement and how this was constructed differentially by gender. The study involved 6 first school (Years 1 – 4), 3 middle schools (Years 5 – 8) and one high school (Years 9 – 13), within these schools 36 classes were sampled across a range of year groups. The study conducted 40 teacher and 144 student semi-structured interviews – from each class 2 high achieving and 2 underachieving pupils of each gender were selected for interview. Students were deemed as underachieving if they were not achieving in academic tests but:

- Had oral abilities better than their reading or writing age
- Had good general knowledge
- Grasped ideas and principles quickly
- Challenged viewpoints or viewed things differently from others
- Appeared unmotivated but capable

In the opening section of interviews teachers were asked to describe the 4 focus students (chosen for interview) from their classes and explain why they felt the two underachievers were underachieving, and how typical these children were of boys in girls in general. Following this, teachers were questioned on perceptions of parental influence on boys and girls and perceptions of learning styles for boys and girls. The interviews concluded with a series of questions investigating teachers views of gender differences in achievement, whether they believed boys and girls should attain equal outcomes, whether they could account for the differences in achievement between genders and whether they had found any strategies that successfully raised boy’s achievement.


Unsurprisingly when asked directly if they felt boys and girls should achieve the same results, 80% of teachers said it was their expectation that this should be the case. Unfortunately, this commitment to equal achievement was not reflected in teacher’s perceptions of classroom attitude, behaviour and ability within different curriculum areas. The teacher interviews found that teachers tended to repeat commonly cited gender stereotypes such as girls settle down and get on with it” and boys don’t like writing”, without any consideration of how this juxtaposed to their own hopes or claims of equality by outcome.

A tally of comments made about boys and girls, revealed 54 positive and only 22 negative comments about girls versus 32 positive and 54 negative comments about boys. Comments about boys suggested they were predominantly viewed in the terms on what they can’t, won’t or don’t do, whereas girls are seen in terms of their achievements and compliant behaviour. Such perceptions lend a voice to the male deficit”. When classified the most common statement from teachers’ interviews were negative comments about boy’s behaviour, closely follow by positive comments regarding girl’s behaviour such as how girls fitted into the classroom environment, versus the outgoing, needing challenge and disruptive” nature of boys.

When prompted to consider the typicality of the focus students, while some of the teachers were resistant to the notion of gender inequality, the dominant response was that the high achieving girls were typical of girls and that the underachieving boys were typical of boys. The only atypical group was the high achieving boys. In their concluding remarks Jones and Myhill comment that it would seem that the characteristics of the high achieving girls seem to influence teachers’ perceptions of all girls.

Classroom observations conducted as part of the study noted that underachieving girls are less likely to be invited to answer a question, and that underachieving boys are consistently the most likely to be invited to respond. Suggesting that teachers do not feel they need to draw in” high achievers from both genders and low achieving girls with questioning as a disciplinary strategy.

Concluding Remarks:

Jones and Myhill conclude but arguing that while the focus of underachievement has revolved around boys for the last few decades, that when the focus of attention is widened to include underachieving girls as well as boys, they are not essentially that dissimilar. The findings of the study indicate a contradictory set of attitudes and assumptions – wanting boys and girls to achieve equally but simultaneously giving voice to and amplifying perceptions that disadvantage boys.

As Chris says in his webinar these findings and those of other studies provide a pretty robust justification for all of us, as teachers, to undertake a degree of self-reflection of our own perceptions, attitudes and behaviours to ensure we are not subconsciously contributing to the problem.

If you want to read the whole article ( “‘Troublesome boys’ and compliant girls’: gender identity and perceptions of achievement and underachievement”), you can do so here.

*1 Osler, A., Street, C., Lall, M. & Vincent, K. (2002) Not a problem? Girls and school exclusion (London, Joseph Rowntree Foundation).

By Ben Crockett (@bencrockett1)

Ben is an Associate Senior leader at Durrington High School. He is also a Research School Associate for Durrington Research School and will be delivering our training on​“Effective Use of the Pupil Premium Fund” with Marc Rowland and our​“Curriculum, Teaching and Assessment Training” with Shaun Allison.

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