Writing in the Spectator, Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute followed a favourite and fascinating educational hare all the way down the burrow. He extended the hoary old truism about the deplorable "feminisation" of education, with exams going modular and gung-ho boys being disadvantaged against plodding careful teacher-pleasing girls.
Stoutly, he averred that it's not the lad culture or the lack of role models that messes up the boys; it's the exams. They're designed for a load of girlies. It'll be the death of us, mark his words.
"What sort of society are we producing", asks Dr Pirie, "if we feminise the entry qualification into its leadership positions?...If we select the methodical over the risk-takers, male and female, and the systematic in preference to those with insight, will Britain still be capable of meeting the challenges the world throws its way? While the country might be more peaceable, more sensitive to the needs of its citizens and more efficient in applying itself to the detail of good management, we might ask if it will still be as inventive and creative? Will it still produce penicillin and hovercraft, or just civil servants?" Excellent chap. Give Dr Pirie a can of worms, and he'll grab a can-opener. And he's quite right about penicillin and hovercraft: every shirking schoolboy keeps in his bedroom a plentiful supply of flourishing sandwich-mould and improbable machines. As they get older, they quite like things with rubber skirts, too. Mind you, it is kind of him to acknowledge that risk-takers, deadline-freaks and believers in brinkmanship can be female as well as male.
Personally, I was thrown out of A-level Roman history for hating the teacher, and learned the whole lot in two days before the exam (D, since you ask). Even the Adam Smith Institute does not quite dare to stigmatise all boys as feckless chancers, and all girls as "methodically, even dully, fulfilling the checklist criteria regardless of passion, insight and flair".
But this leaves us with the knotty problem of how to accommodate those who prefer to learn the entire course the night before the exam on Pro-Plus tablets, and who miss coursework deadlines as a matter of principle. Dr Pirie shows a rare sympathy for their needs, and recommends the institution of exams which "appeal to them and bring out their strengths". Girlie plodders, meanwhile, an keep the old ones.
"One answer might be to have different examination boards providing different styles of exam," he suggests. Teachers and students could then select the exam that best suits them and presto! Problem solved. Girls might be entered for those with more modules and coursework, while boys are steered towards the sudden-death exam.
Hmm. If I was a sixth-form tutor, I would be weeping and banging my head on the wall. The terror of the situation hardly bears thinking of. Can you imagine Parents Evening?
"Oh, Mr Patterson. Good, good. Wanted a word with you. We're putting Kevin in for the Amalgamated All-Risk Board. The good news is that he won't have to produce any evidence of work until the second Wednesday in June. We feel it is an especially suitable regime for him."
Meanwhile, at the table next door, another pair of parents is being fed a different line altogether. "We've had a staff meeting, and on the whole we agree that Samantha would do best on the Dullford syllabus. It's not a soft option, dear me, no: there are some very challenging folders to be done on a monthly basis over two years, and you get extra points for neat margins and tidy binding."
Everyone would be insulted. When children failed, they would sue the school for misreading their special talents and putting them in for the wrong A-level. ("Just because I missed one essay, he puts me in the one-day MaxiRisk, even though I get hay-fever"I "I tell you, it's a fact that Oxbridge never even look at the PlodBoard candidates, they're just not macho.") And, of course, league tables would find some way of reflecting how many of a school's pupils took which sort of exam. If they didn't, the prospectuses would state it heavily, and gender envy would flare up everywhere. "St Etheldreda's, with its ethos of independence and endeavour, prides itself on the fact that 82.5 per cent of our girls are awarded high grades in the public examinations designed for boys."
You probably wouldn't get the converse - boys' teachers bragging about their ability to stick to modular coursework. Because, as you and I and Adam Smith know perfectly well, everybody with a bit of dash to them wants to be Alexander Fleming or Christopher Cockerell or Richard Branson, and nobody wants to advertise themselves as merely "peaceable, sensitive to the needs of citizens and efficient in applying themselves to the detail of good management".
If they did, the NHS wouldn't be in such a mess, would it?