underachieving white, working-class boys should be allowed to leave school at 14 without being seen as failures, an academic has proposed. They should not be forced to stay on and sit exams that do not interest them.
Naomi Breen, of Manchester university, says that, instead, disengaged boys should be able to return to school as adults if they decide in later life that academic qualifications would be beneficial.
The underachievement of white, working-class boys is widely considered to be one of the biggest problems facing schools. More than half the boys from the white British population achieved five or more top-grade passes at GCSE in 2006. But only 24 per cent of those eligible for free school meals - an indicator of poverty and, therefore, class - reached the same level. They were well behind poor boys from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other white ethnic backgrounds.
But Ms Breen says that it is not working-class male failure that needs to be questioned, but the notion of failure itself.
"Not having qualifications doesn't mean you're a failure," she says.
"Qualifications don't always lead to jobs for the working classes. Boys who leave school with no exams obviously find some work. Is that work not as valid as having A-levels or a degree?"
She believes that a myth of working-class underachievement was created following the 1944 Education Act and the subsequent introduction of the tripartite system: grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. Grammar pupils were seen as successes, and the others as failures.
"It's ridiculous that exams are put up as the paradigm of education," says Ms Breen. "That's true even with vocational qualifications. It's time people learnt to value things other than your grades or how many GCSEs."
Last month, the Government announced its intention to make education compulsory to the age of 18. But Alan Smithers, of Buckingham university, believes that Ms Breen's proposal would be more constructive for underachieving boys. "Compulsory education wasn't introduced for the benefit of young people," he says. "It was introduced because young people were making a nuisance of themselves on street corners.
"It's an easy assumption that more education is good for everyone. But if pupils feel it's imposed on them, they'll rebel against it."
He would like to see 14-year-olds given choices, including training opportunities with employers. If promotion required extra qualifications, they would have an incentive to return to school.
But Trefor Lloyd, director of Working With Men, an educational charity, is outraged by the suggestion. Twenty years ago, he says, 16-year-olds could find good jobs in manufacturing or heavy industry; today, few such opportunities exist.
"Boys get distracted by mates and girls, and forget why they're at school,"
he says. "But if vocational training is good and solid, a lot of underachieving boys respond well to it." Far from being examphobic, he adds, many boys thrive on being judged. "Letting boys leave at 14 lets schools off the hook," he says. "It sidesteps the need to address boys'
"And we know there's a link between being out of school and becoming involved in crime. It would be a complete disaster."
In 2006, 52.2% of all boys nationally achieved five or more GCSEs at grade A*-C. That same year, 24% of white British boys entitled to free school meals achieved five A*-C grades. This is a rise of only 7% since 2003.
Figures for the same year show how poor boys from other groups achieved: Bangladeshi 48.2%; Pakistani 37.8%; Chinese 65%; Indian 48.3%; white non-British boys, including migrants from Eastern Europe, 36.1%.
31.3% of poor, white British girls also reached this level, up 6.3% since 2003.
25% of white British children live in poverty, compared with 51% of those from ethnic minorities.
Research at Essex university shows that children of immigrants who moved to Britain in the 1960s are much more likely to find jobs as professionals or managers than the offspring of white, working-class families.