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Support for boys need not hurt girls

I hesitate to reply to the points in last week's thoughtful Platform piece, "Keeping balance on the gender agenda", by Miriam David and Gaby Weiner, because I never wanted the TESGreenwich lecture I gave - to which their article responds - to be seen as setting boys' underachievement against girls' aspirations. What is written below, therefore, is not meant to be antagonistic.

I stressed in the lecture, as well as in my article "Oh boy!" (TES, May 16), that nothing I said about low achievement by boys should be seen as an argument against the continuing improvement of education for girls. However, I want to clarify and explain further some of the points raised by Professor David and Professor Weiner.

First, the writers say they themselves have "not found an outright gap between boys' and girls' results at A-level". The figures I gave for 17-year-olds obtaining three or more A-levels - 20.5 per cent for boys and 24.2 per cent for girls -were from official national statistics from the Department for Education and Employment for the latest year available, 1994-95.

I might equally have cited the figures for two or more A-levels (boys 26.5 per cent, girls 31.8 per cent), or for one or more A-levels (boys 31.1 per cent, girls 37.1 per cent), all of which show the same pattern.

The next point they make is that the article I wrote "invited" the artwork accompanying the article: a picture of identical white boys each shackled by a ball and chain. I did not in fact see, or design, the artwork - although I agree the illustrator might have provided a wider range of figures. Many of the problems I described run across groups. Middle-class fathers may well plead "executive stress" as a reason for not finding time to read with their children, and there are no more male infant teachers in rural villages than there are in urban schools.

On the other hand, I thought the drab uniformity and ball-and-chain imagery made an arresting visual metaphor - especially the picture of the boy whose metal ball was actually his own head. This neatly captured the way in which adolescent boys in particular, through fear of being labelled by their peers a swot or a "boff", rebel against bookishness.

The authors of the Platform piece say I only address boys' education. Well, the underachievement of boys was the topic of my lecture. Had I talked about pre-schooling or children with special needs, then the main focus would have been on those matters. Anyone choosing an issue of concern can always be accused of neglecting other important problems, or wanting one group to flourish at another's expense.

I was surprised at the authors' negative stance towards early intervention - "extremely expensive", "Where will the resource come from?" This argument could be used against many developments in education. We must find the will and the resources to match. Highly educated citizens are cheap at the price. Ram-raiders, joyriders, unqualified and unemployable young adults, rioters, future generations of disaffected parents, all these are very expensive.

Not once in my article or lecture did I suggest that boys should get preferential treatment over girls. Fathers should read to their sons as well as to their daughters, not instead of to them. Sadly, in our Leverhulme Primary Improvement project research, half the fathers of children in the 5-7 age group, and three-quarters in the 7-11 group, read to neither.

Similarly, when teachers improve boys' behaviour it often benefits the girls whose education is being disrupted. It is not impossible to achieve this, as many primary teachers we have observed during this and other classroom observation projects successfully manage it. If boys grab new technology equipment, this is not a reason for discarding it from a reading improvement strategy. The answer is to stop them being so rude and provide more work stations. Again it is a matter of will, resources, class management and sponsoring less uncouth personal relationships.

Thousands of "muscled" jobs, the loading, lifting, carrying tasks traditionally undertaken by young unskilled males, have disappeared for ever. The underachievement of boys is, in my view, one of the most pressing issues facing society as the 21st century dawns.

I hope that Professor David and Professor Weiner accept that, as the father of two feminist daughters, the last thing I would advocate, even obliquely, is a raw deal for girls.

At the risk of attracting a bit of flak, however, I shall still bang on about boys' underachievement.

Ted Wragg is Professor of Education at Exeter University

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