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Grow up sonny and get a life

Act your age!" I once snapped at my son. "But Mum, I'm just a little boy," he replied. Years later, I'm still thinking it. Is it the first child syndrome? Are my expectations so wrong? Or just that these days we let boys stay children for ever?

He is now 18, and does a lot around the house to help his ailing mum and to justify the fact I'm still feeding and sheltering him at a stage when I reckon he should be grown up. The other one is 16 - and I would probably be more tolerant of his behaviour if I didn't keep reminding myself he could be married.

I have wise friends. One (who has been there, has the T-shirt and also a grandchild who unexpectedly appeared) reckons that boys don't grow up until they are 26 - unless they miss that bus, in which case it will be 32.

I go into schools, and watch the infantile way these 6ft children behave and quite honestly, think the money spent on educating them (or not, as the case may be) would be better used boosting old age pensions. The girls might be giggly and obsessed by their appearance - but they do just get on with it at the end of the day. Maybe our pain lies in the fact that they are so busy trying to act beyond their years that we weep for their vulnerability.

There is a lot of emphasis on hitting targets in the classroom. A newspaper headline the other day announced that 57 per cent of the boys fail writing tests. What it actually meant was that fewer than half the lads achieve level E when they are 14. And that, I am afraid, is more to do with intelligence than teaching. These are targets that cannot be met because some kids are less able than others.

But I'm talking about a society that allows young men to stay boys. That even encourages it. And that has nothing to do with ability. After watching some fourth-years waste the last session I'm now watching them fill in their fifth-year option form.

They have no more intention of working next year than this. They will not suddenly find school fascinating. But coming back to school is a damn good reason not to have to look for a job, or to at least take responsibility for yourself.

Maybe I'm wrong (and occasionally I may be). But I think the real problem lies in a willingness to accept levels of behaviour from intelligent young men that would not be tolerated in bright young women. Yet while girls forge ahead at school, by the end of university boys have reclaimed the lead. They can get their heads down when they choose to.

I would like to see these guys be made accountable. No fifth year unless they have a fully timetabled week of courses within their ability (and how often does that happen?) and out on their backsides the moment the bad behaviour starts. Growing up shouldn't be optional.

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