For Byers read biased

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
In seeking a scapegoat for poor performance among boys , the Schools Minister has scorned women teachers. Catherine McDermott is furious

The Schools Minister's recent discovery of the gender gap in our children's achievement generated gnashing of teeth in homes and staffrooms this month. Within 24 hours the media had satiated its brief but burning hunger for the issue, leaving the public with a convenient, male-friendly, multiple choice of blame. Who is at fault?

* society?

* errant fathers?

* a shift in employment patterns (still quaintly referred to as unemployment in some areas)?

* teachers (female)?

* The Spice Girls?

Only one conclusion was universal and proclaimed with vigour: Stephen Byers is right, it seems. Ultimately, through no fault of their own (bless them!), women just aren't up to the job.

Then the unspeakable was spoken. In the light of the circumstances it seemed rational and just. After all, one can't expect men to work for such paltry sums. Men are thrusting, ambitious, impulsive and they take risks. Women are cautious, conscientious, reflective and... let's face it, too soft and fluffy for our British boys.

There's a galling contradiction at the heart of this neat rationale, immediately apparent to every female teacher in the land. If the Government really believes the old gender inequalities are a thing of the past, why is it so anxious to pay men more than women? When our girls leave school they will not, on the whole, earn more than their male peers, nor find their employment any more rewarding or stimulating. Many young men will not be able to find work; many young women find themselves confined to low-paid, part-time, insecure work in service industries. Middle-class children will do as well as they have always done and very little, really, will change. Noises will be made, but our children will not have anything more substantial to look forward to.

Teachers worry for the future of our boys and girls, as they worry about the alienation and poverty in which many of them, and their parent(s), live. Until Byers and his government show willing to make an economic difference to these children's lives, many teachers will see their hastily spun schemes as banal and cynical.

Teachers have been implementing strategies to help the boys in their classes for a long time - strategies evolved by careful planning and experience. As any key stage 4 pupil who has tackled the Macbeths will tell you, assumptions of gender are usually fatuous and insulting to both sexes. To dismiss the hard work of women as futile is to condescend in a characteristically ministerial fashion - expedient, uninformed and lazy. Mr Byers should remember that hell hath no fury. And read his Macbeth again.

Catherine McDermott teaches English in a comprehensive in the North-West.

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