The academic under-performance of boys has belatedly received the accolade of ministerial recognition. At the beginning of this term, Stephen Byers drew the nation's attention to the way "laddishness" is interfering with boys' academic ambitions. The newspapers were full of stories telling us how the male of the species is an enfeebled and degenerate specimen.
It is strangely reassuring to classroom teachers when public figures recognise what the practitioners have been experiencing for many years. Both in mixed and in boys-only schools, teachers in the primary and secondary phases are only too aware that many of their male pupils are:
* reluctant to learn, and especially to read; * highly disorganised in approaching coursework and in completing homework; * unmotivated by intrinsic merit of schoolwork or by the extrinsic carrots of public recognition; * unwilling to reject the peer pressure of low expectation; * unforgiving of teaching techniques which are perceived to be boring, routine and irrelevant; * highly sceptical about the value of their education in relation to long-term employment in a rapidly changing world.
Over the past few weeks, The TES has carried a number of encouraging articles which have shown that schools are no longer prepared to accept boys' under-performance as inevitable. It could be that the advent of target-setting and the increasing public attention paid to examination results tables has sharpened our thinking.
Schools are looking into the way the pupils are grouped and some are experimenting with single-sex classes in some subjects. Two Essex co-educational schools go even further and have virtually all teaching in single-sex groups and appear to be achieving remarkable "value-added" results.
Good heads of department are beginning to question whether or not our classroom management techniques unwittingly "turn boys off"; do we spend too much time on group and project work at the expense of teacher-directed activities, which boys seem to prefer?
Others are looking into the content of the teaching material. Do they appeal equally to boys and to girls? Does the choice of literature that we study appeal more to girls who have a more mature response to traditional texts? Some schools are drawing in external mentors to give under-performing boys more personal encouragement. Many schools are including gender and performance in their in-service training programme.
These developments are to be welcomed because the performance of boys will not be improved simply by Government ministers exhorting them to stop being laddish. Change needs to be focused, structured and specific.
It doesn't seem very long ago that one of the main concerns in the teaching profession was the under-performance of girls. It was rightly observed that many able girls (who out-performed boys so markedly at the end of the primary phase that the 11-plus results had to be adjusted so that selective schools had a balanced intake) failed to achieve their potential at 16-plus. They did not stay on into the sixth form and were content to settle for employment which was near at hand, rather than to aspire to more demanding posts which require higher education. In particular, it was noted that gender-stereotyping of subject choices at option stages tended to divert girls away from science and technology.
To tackle this issue, schemes such as GIST (Girls into Science and Technology) and WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) were introduced, with the support of the Equal Opportunities Commission. It is difficult to know objectively whether girls who took part in these activities went on to choose subjects against the gender trend. My impression, as former head of a large comprehensive school which supported these initiatives, is that they had a positive impact. What I am quite certain of is that the project made a difference to the overall academic self-esteem of girls.
For example, when the WISE bus visited the school, normal lessons had to be rearranged so that girls could spend a period of time being inspired to look more positively into science and engineering as possible careers. The very fact that this was a "special event" gave them the message that someone out there was taking girls seriously and I believe this played a significant part in improving their general attitude towards school work.
Perhaps the time has now come, in the name of equal opportunities, for a similar initiative to be directed at boys. The most obvious area of the curriculum to target would be the learning of modern languages. Boys generally perform badly from about half way through Year 7 and before long find themselves, in mixed schools, in lower sets, disgruntled, demotivated and, in many cases, extremely unrewarding to teach. The achievement gap at GCSE in 1997 was 13 per cent at the higher grade boundary in French and 25 per cent in German. Other than in selective or independent single-sex schools, very few boys go on to take languages at A-level, and the number taking language degrees is declining rapidly.
When it comes to recruiting men into teaching modern languages, the imbalance is amazing: in three PGCE courses chosen at random, men make up seven out of 29, seven out of 35 and three out of 65. So the circle is completed: modern languages departments are staffed almost entirely by females (many of whom are, of course, good teachers) but the message is clear to boys: language learning is a female activity.
To redress this imbalance and to help boys realise that the educational world is concerned about their overall progress, BILL (Boys into Language Learning) could perhaps have a part to play. BILL might consist of a range of activities which would appeal to boys: competitions, video projects, IT-based work, links with European football clubs, promotional material showing men who have successfully learned languages and are finding it useful in their careers.
A role model who springs to mind is the Prime Minister himself. At last we have as our national leader a person capable of addressing the French Assembly without needing an interpreter. If he were to give this idea his support, we could have an alternative version of BILL - Blair Inspires a Love of Languages!
Peter Downes is former head of Hinchingbrooke School, Huntingdon, and is president-elect of the Association for Language Learning