Boys get a raw deal and their needs are ignored in schools, claims expert

29th May 2009 at 01:00

Boys are more discriminated against than girls in 21st-century schools, according to a leading education consultant and author.

Sue Palmer, whose book 21st-Century Boys is published this month, believes boys are disadvantaged at home, at school and at play.

In this week's TES, she argues that male rights need to be championed as much as female rights.

"Boys have been getting a rather worse deal than girls," she said. "Baby boys are developmentally behind girls from the start ... 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."

She believes boys' developmental backwardness puts them at a disadvantage once formal learning starts.

"Asking them to read and write before they're physically capable of sitting still, holding a pencil or tracking their eyes along a row of print is frankly cruel," she said.

But Christine Skelton, professor of gender equality in education at Birmingham University, disagrees. "It's very depressing to hear this viewpoint still being promoted," she said. "Teachers will tell you there are as many differences ... within sex groups as between them. The idea that all boys have a raw deal and all girls have an easy time of it is a nonsense."

Ms Palmer previously championed the breakdown of gender stereotypes, but now believes teachers and parents should acknowledge innate differences between the sexes.

"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," she said. "Male and female are different. Equality means recognising these differences."

But Professor Skelton says even neuroscientists acknowledge an interplay between nature and nurture in the construction of gender roles.

And Carrie Paechter, professor of education at Goldsmiths College, London, says baby boys are generally encouraged to be adventurous, crawling further on their own, while baby girls tend to be held and cuddled. "It's not surprising that, by the age of four, boys are more adventurous," she said.

She believes it is vital that teachers avoid gender stereotyping. "It's important for teachers to work against that - to give children ways of being boys and girls that are less narrow," she said.

'21st-Century Boys' by Sue Palmer is published by Orion.

Comment, page 25.

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