Cowed boys and Amazons

14th February 2003 at 00:00
A fearsome new breed of girl now rules the classroom and sidelined males can only watch in awe, says Jessica Milln.

I have been living a life of extremes - either bottled up at home with three wildly energetic infant sons, or facing a hormone-clouded room of teenagers obliged to re-sit GCSEs. As a mother I have a dilemma. How to persuade my sons to do their best: should I be firm with them or nurture their confidence? The teacher in me has become profoundly ambiguous about the gender revolution taking place in schools.

Classroom dynamics have utterly changed. Boys are now quieter than girls - that zest for life they once had barely produces a pulse nowadays.

I have mixed feelings about this. I was educated in the 1970s in a world which favoured men. Quite rightly, since then, we have championed the academic aspirations of girls, encouraging them to assert themselves.

Encouraging girls in this way has led to social change - but, in the classroom, it is a change too far. I worry how my sons will get on in today's schools where boys sit meekly on the fringes of the class, often in awe of these increasingly rampant, fearsome, boob-thrusting, Amazon-like teenage girls, who seem to rule the school. I kid you not!

In focusing on girls we have forgotten how to inspire boys. Whenever today's females do exceptional things they are feted as role models, and rightly so. Yachtswoman Ellen McArthur blew my socks off with her Vendee Globe triumph - "driven by a dream", she said.

Yet when Sebastian Clover, at 15, became the youngest person to sail single-handed across the Atlantic his triumph got relatively little coverage, other than the odd: "A shark ate my homework!" cartoon.

Here is a boy who possesses sporting prowess to impress the men, an appealing, adventurous image to make girls swoon and a pretty impressive set of life skills to get him across an ocean! The trouble is, historically, so much has been expected of men that we now forget to pat them on the back for their achievements.

So I would like to plead for a huge effort to empower the lads! Restore the balance, counterweight it by finding inspiring male role models.

If nothing is done, we risk a world full of either inert, timid men or belligerent and discouraged bully-boys.

Every summer's results seem to spark yet more concern over the widening gender gap of achievement. Back in the 1970s it was the girls who were underachievers. Now the tide has turned:girls outperform even in once "male" subjects such as physics.

Whatever was done to turn achievement levels for girls around has been enormously successful. On television there seems to be a plethora of beautiful, talented and intelligent women. But when it comes to listing men I stumble. The intellectual ones are older, the cool ones are all sporting heroes or pop stars, the funny or attractive ones are often gay.

We desperately need to persuade boys that it is cool to study, and to praise them for doing it. Boys may well often appear unresponsive to congratulation and praise, but that doesn't mean they don't crave it.

When my four-year old started school I despaired of his continual bad behaviour and worried that the rigid expectations of school might be detrimental to him. But then a drawing earned him the praise he required.

He was encouraged to show the piece of work to his headteacher and turned from "tyrant" to "puppy".

Boys are too often labelled as "underachievers". They need two things to build up "boy power": self-discipline and self-belief - a firm line and a nurturing one.

Perversely, now that my son has decided to be good, he has also told me that makes him "a girl"! What does that tell you about present gender stereotypes?

Jessica Milln was a teacher at St Austell college, Cornwall until August 2002. She is currently taking a break

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