I was teaching English to a group of GCSE pupils earlier this year. It was a voluntary lunchtime class for those likely to struggle below the CD borderline. All the volunteers were boys, so I raised the question as to why boys did less well than girls in public examinations. It was safe ground for me. I had done research on the topic, and had read around it, so I added a few details to their own assessments.
"You see, girls also lend books to each other," I ventured.
"I lend people books," one boy protested.
"That's true, he lent me a book," another confirmed.
"Yes, and you burned it," the first lad replied.
I am happy to say that both lender and burner got their grade C in English last week when the results came out, and I am sure it was not just because I threatened to hide behind the curtains in the exam room and leap out with my hands round their throat the minute their attention strayed.
But it was disappointing that boys again trailed girls in virtually every GCSE and A-level subject, sometimes by a large margin. This was especially bad news for a society where millions of muscled jobs, traditionally taken by young male school-leavers, have disappeared and been replaced by people jobs. Employers nowadays look not for big biceps, but rather for a good GCSE in English. Two-thirds of girls achieved this, compared with half of the boys.
It is very tempting to demonise boys as unemployable drones. After all, they stagger behind on all counts, so it must serve them right, the lazy beggars. Three to five-year-old boys run round nurseries making Formula One noises, while the girls discuss Wittgenstein. Boys do less well in primaries, especially in language. They score lower than girls in virtually all secondary examinations, are less likely to get into university, and nowadays women get more firsts and upper seconds.
About two-thirds of the 40,000 pupils who leave without a single graded GCSE are boys. Fifteen times more boys than girls are excluded from primary schools for bad behaviour, while in secondary schools it is between four and five times as many. Whether we look at high or low attainers, older or younger pupils, academic achievement or behaviour, boys seem to be losers.
Yet, merely sneering - at adolescent lads in particular - will solve nothing. Who wants a future where half the population is stigmatised? Getting up the noses of their elders may be one of the few free pleasures left to male youths in a society dominated by credentials, so it may even become a perverse satisfaction.
In May 1997 I wrote an article in The TES called "Oh Boy!", describing some research we had done at Exeter University which showed that it was mainly mothers who read at home with children. I soon received correspondence from many countries saying that the issue of boys' achievement in a changing world was very widespread. Since then many schools have shown that much can be done to break the stereotype.
Back in the 1970s, people used to put down girls in the same way, labelling them as airheads who wanted to leave school at the earliest opportunity. Fortunately, organised programmes and a concerted effort in schools persuaded more girls to stay on, or to study science and technology. As a result, today's girls exceed the achievements of their equally talented mothers and grandmothers because they have been given a chance. Sadly, we now label boys as the adolescent airheads, only interested in a kickaround with their mates, genetically incapable of coursework. It is socially constructed nonsense.
It would be much more positive to embrace the strategies used by schools that have raised boys' achievement without jeopardising the chances of girls. There is no single miracle solution, rather a series of linked moves throughout the age range. Nursery teachers can encourage boys to talk about their fantasy play. Once in school, more fathers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers should be urged to read with children in their family. We studied one boy who made spectacular progress after his grandfather bought him comics and his father read books with him.
Then there are the English teachers, who find out pupils' interests and try to steer some of the more reluctant in the direction of books and websites on their personal enthusiasms; those schools that organise catch-up classes for pupils who have fallen behind; the teachers who discuss coursework and its pitfalls at the beginning of Year 10, so everyone is clear that boys in particular often burn their boats by not completing coursework, or doing it shoddily.
A lot can still be done. Bring back some recent leavers who can recount their own experiences, for good or ill. Discuss the whole issue with pupils themselves as a legitimate mainstream classroom activity, or at a joint parents' and pupils' evening conference, not as a hasty aside. They are often quite sober when engaged in a serious discussion about the nature of employment in a society dominated by information and communications.
Some of these approaches will undoubtedly fail with certain of the boys, but the interesting questions are: why they do not succeed, and what might work instead; and that is a challenge not just to teachers, but to the boys themselves.
Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University