Do boys learn differently to girls?

Up and down the country in 1000’s of schools there are improvement plans with some variation of the phrase ‘raise boys’ achievement.’  For most schools this is a yearly target because year on year the difference between boys’ and girls’ attainment either continues to grow or remains stagnant.  Very rarely does this gap close.

Context:The difference between boys and girls?

The national attainment gap (those achieving a GLD) in the Early Years is currently 13% between girls and boys.  At the Year one phonics check the gap is 7%, and 8% combined at KS1 SATS.  The same is repeated again at KS2 SATS (8%) and currently 9% more girls achieve A*-C than boys at GCSE level.  At every assessment level, girls do better than boys.

But beyond the data, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence to suggest that boys’ dispositions to learning and our education system are different to those of girls. Phrases such as ‘well.. he is a boy,’ or ‘a boisterous boy if ever I saw one,’ were once forgivable but are now worrisome for a sector under intense pressure to deliver for both boys and girls. 


Has this problem always existed?

In 2000, David Blunkett said, ‘[the] gap that has opened up between the sexes at school is a long-standing one and an international problem for which there is no quick fix, but I am determined that our boys should not miss out.’ (DfES cited in Browne, 2004). This concern, echoed by those in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North American seems as pertinent now 18 years later as it did then. 

Debbie Epstein et al (1998) suggests that there are 3 major discourses about why boys struggle so much in our schools:

The first is that of ‘poor boys.’  This suggests that boys are disadvantaged by living in single parent families (often a mother) and surrounded by female educators who (unconsciously) promote the success of girls over boys through their teaching.  The second is that of ‘boys will be boys,’ where she states boys are victims of their own biology and physiology and their behaviour is stereotypical and misunderstood by the female educators around them. These two discourses have led to an attempt to increase the amount of men working within the educational sector. Currently just 2% of the Early Years workforce is comprised of men and 25% of primary schools have no male members of staff.  The Co-operative as well as various ‘Men in Early Years networks’ have tried to address this with limited success and as such little research or evidence is available on their outcomes. Epstein’s third discourse is that of ‘failing schools, failing boys.’  She suggests that schools which do not score highly in academic tests are not just failing boys but all of their pupils. This is less about what should be done for boys but rather what should be done for all pupils.  However in schools with good or outstanding outcomes, the attainment gap often remains.

As a practitioner, do these discourses match your own thinking about why boys do less well than girls?  

I do not recognise that boys with present fathers, in general, do better than those without and I struggle to believe that the attainment gap is down to the biological and physiological differences between boys and girls. 

However, if you sat in your staff room and asked your fellow teachers about the differences between boys and girls, what would you hear? The most common response when I ask this question is, ‘but their brains are different,’ followed by ‘it’s all testosterone,’ and my favourite, ‘they just like to play rough.’

The 3 discourses above still underpin a lot of views about boys and girls within our schools but I believe we need a slightly fresher angle on what is causing these differences and what we can do to close that attainment gap. 

Brain differences?

Are there differences in the brain between boys and girls?Michael Gurian, a well renowned therapist and educator from the US has written extensively about the differences between boys and girls. Amongst the assertions are differences within the brain between the two sexes such as the lack of connections between the two hemispheres of the brain and a lack of connection between the two via the Corpus Callosum (the part of the brain which connects the two hemispheres.) This is a commonly repeated idea however is refuted by those who work within the neuroscience field.

Such as Lise Eliot who, in ‘Pink Brain Blue Brain,’ argues that, “just as boys’ and girls’ bodies start out more androgynous than they end up in adulthood, their brains appear to be less sexually differentiated than adult men’s and women’s.” She argues that any differences are largely overplayed. This view is echoed by other neuroscientists however, there are those who disagree.  Perhaps the educational sector ought to wait for the scientific one to make up its mind? 

However, poignantly Julie Cigman writes “there is less difference between the male and female brain than there is between male and female behaviour.” 

If not in the brain, where do these differences come from?

A child of 5 will arrive at school having a pretty good idea that they are either a boy or a girl and what that means.  They are a product of our modern society where advertisements, toys, games, television, movies and books usually depict women in more caring roles and men in the more violent or adventurous ones.  These stereotypes are usually backed up by parents who dress their children in specific colours, buy them gender-specific toys and, sometimes subconsciously prevent their children from taking part in activities usually associated with the opposite sex. 

social referencingChildren pick up on this because they are perfect detectors of gender.  They learn about what is good and bad, starting as babies, by what Cigman calls ‘social referencing.’  These messages that children pick up on can be as simple as a mother taking her daughter away from a mud pit or a father writing a note on his phone rather than a scrap of paper. Children learn what behaviours are masculine (for men) and feminine (for women) at the same time they are learning that they are boys or girls so their brains make the connections for them. 

People argue that this can be overcome, that parents can be aware of social referencing and make changes which change children’s own perceptions of the sexes. However for most of us the damage is already done.  Children have arrived at school having had a tremendous amount of time to process what it is to be a boy/girl and there is a limited amount that we can do with them for 6 hours a day for 190 days. For those practitioners who work with children from birth, more work can be done with parents from the start. 

Practical advice:

As an Early Years Specialist, my advice is rooted within these years. However much of this could be applied as part of a subtle whole-school approach.

These strategies should not be seen in isolation, as that simply won’t work. As part of my classroom culture I have used these collectively and have had a lot of success along the way: 

  • Follow interests: We’ve become very ‘topic/theme’ obsessed and whilst this gives a lot of comfort to practitioners, it is possible to have a topic and follow interests at the same time, if you so wish.  Create new topics each September/October for the whole year which match the interests of both the girls AND boys. Ditch the tokenistic superhero topic in Spring 2, make superheroes part of the everyday as much as making cakes in the home corner.  Where possible, try to have more time to respond to interests in the short term and ensure you’re being fair to both sexes.  If you have a bunch of boys interested in football but a group of girls interested in hairdressers, do both!  Find ways to incorporate real world experiences into both (such as writing or counting) and support those who aren’t interested in these with enhancements elsewhere.  Boys are far more likely to engage with a period of time when they can be that villain they saw on the TV, writing ransom notes than they will in a topic on ‘holidays’ where they have to write a list of things to take away with them. Staff should also be involved with their interests. I HATE football, but you wouldn’t know it in my classroom. When a child (usually a boy) wants to play, I play! A disengaged teacher means that child thinks their interests are worthless.

  • Role models:  What difference does having a man around make to the lives of boys?  As we have seen above, Epstein suggests that the lack of men is having a negative impact on boys’ ability to be understood by those around them. Yet, I know plenty of women who share the same interests as the boys in their class.  To be an effective role model does not mean you need to be the same gender or sex as the child. Instead, supporting them in their interests, showing them how to take risks and forming those relationships of trust are more crucial for children to see that both boys and girls can take part in the same activities with equal success. Women play a vital role in showing boys that females can be messy, dirty and adventurous too. However, I do have one message about role models: Talk to the fathers in your class and ask them to read and write with their sons. Women can break down the stereotypes around being tough or physical and being willing to get coated in mud, but boys still sometimes see reading and writing as feminine pursuits. With the increase of technology, most dads will be doing most of their day-to-day reading and writing via their phones. Encourage them to make notes as often as they can, even if it’s just a quick shopping list on the fridge. 

  • languageLanguage – your language matters when you’re speaking to and about the boys and girls in your care. ‘No more boys and girls’ (BBC) highlighted how one teacher used typically ‘feminine’ language for the girls (pet, love) and typically ‘masculine’ (mate, son) language for boys.  Where possible try to ensure you’re using a variety of language so boys know its ok to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘kind’ and girls know its ok to be ‘tough’ and ‘brave.’  When you’re talking about the children around you, ensure you speaking positively about what they’re saying and doing and not commenting about how unusual it is that little Jimmy put on a dress today. 


The Educational world will never fully agree on what makes for the best environment for boys and girls because every classroom is different. You, as the teacher, bring your own uniqueness and the culture you create is one that is impossible to replicate fully.  We are influenced by our school leaders, the children and our life experiences just like those children are influenced by their own experiences. Society has helped to mould the boys in your class into the young men they are and despite all the work we do, we will never be able to fully undo this because once you step outside of the school, it is reinforced through our culture.  What we can do is to adapt to them, realise that they come to us with certain beliefs about what it means to be a boy and to provide resources and strategies for them which encourages them to learn how they who they are. 

The issue of boys’ underachievement is such a divisive one that writing this took a lot of soul searching, reading and arguing. We all have boys in our classrooms and therefore we are all entitled to an opinion. I would suggest that you form your own, based on your own children and your own life experiences. You’ll know you’re successful when you have created a culture within your classroom where boys are not seen as a disadvantaged group but equal stakeholders in the class. 

So, how does your classroom culture promote boys’ learning?


Browne, Naima, ‘Gender equity in the early years,’ (2004)  
Cigman, Julie, ‘Getting Boys Up and Running in the Early Years: Creating stimulating places and spaces for learning,’ (2016)
Eliot, Lise, 'Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps - And What We Can Do About It,' (2009).
Gurian, Michael, ‘Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents,’ (2001) 

This article only scratches the surface. If you would like to learn more about the differences between boys and girls and how to adapt your setting to meet the challenge, sign up for ‘Making Purple’ an online training course by ‘James at NurseryNook’.  James will also be delivering ‘Making Purple’ to practitioners from September 2018, book at his website

Nursery NookJames Tunnell is an Early Years Specialist currently working at an Inner city school in Bradford. He has held the post of teacher, middle and senior leader and will soon be deliver training and consultancy within the Yorkshire region.


character, classroom, education, growth, learn, learning, mindset, Parents, primary, school, Teaching

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