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Raise boys, not achievement

Mea culpa. As a headteacher back in the 1980s, I berated a teacher for putting pictures of rockets and tractors beside the boys' coatpegs, and flowers and fluffy bunnies beside the girls'. And in the early 1990s, I was general editor of a reading scheme for which authors were instructed to include "strong female protagonists" (with the unintended consequence that almost all the male characters were weaklings, villains or buffoons).

But after spending the last three years researching a book on boys, I'm feeling a tad shamefaced about these earlier attempts at social engineering. It's been a bit of a facer 25 years later to discover that, despite all our gender equality policies, little boys still have a marked preference for things that go brrm brrm, and little girls for soft, furry animals.

As for the reading scheme, I'm now wondering how many boys we switched on to feminist values with our strong female protagonists. Or did our zealotry just convince them that reading was a girly skill, so they might as well not bother. Certainly, boys' literacy skills haven't kept pace with girls' over the last 15 years. And that might help explain why professions in the UK such as medicine, veterinary science, the law and secondary teaching are all now predominantly female, while the dole queues are full of sad, buffoonish male Neets (out of work, training or education).

It's not that I've ceased to support the cause of female equality - I certainly want my daughter, and my daughter's daughters, to have all the opportunities that were open to me. It's just that, after wading through the research and interviewing scores of boys and men, I've become just as committed to male equality. Isn't that what equality's all about? And in 21st-century Britain, I think boys have been getting a rather worse deal than girls.

It starts from birth. Baby boys are developmentally behind girls from the start, and probably need more "mothering" to help initiate them into the human race. But changes in working patterns, family structures and attitudes to childhood mean we don't value early childcare much at all. By failing to recognise what women contributed to the social mix in the past, we've actually ceased to value care (and it's not just boys that suffer from this cultural change - it's all of us).

Then, as babies turn into toddlers and pre-schoolers, boys' play is very different from girls'. No matter how hard liberal middle-class parents and teachers try to make them act the same, children insist on behaving naturally. This means boys feel the need to run and jump and scramble and play-fight - but there's seldom much space for this sort of activity in an urban nursery school, not to mention the miles of health and safety red tape with which we now tie down our children.

So once formal learning starts - ridiculously early in this country - boys are at a disadvantage. Asking them to read and write before they're physically capable of sitting still, hold a pencil or track their eyes along a row of print is frankly cruel. When they very reasonably object to this treatment, we call them failures, give them catch-up lessons or - if they really can't hack it - diagnose special educational needs. Four times as many boys as girls are labelled with ADHD and, last year, half a million prescriptions for Ritalin were written in the UK.

Not surprisingly, in the battle between cool and school, most boys find cool infinitely preferable. Teachers try, of course. I've lost count of the number of studies I ploughed through on "raising boys' achievement". But the last three years have convinced me it's time to stop obsessing about raising boys' achievement and concentrate on raising boys.

Sue Palmer is a former headteacher and author of '21st Century Boys', just published, and `Toxic Childhood'.

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