Daredevil boys cast into the wilderness

29th June 2007 at 01:00
My niece has finally qualified as a junior doctor after years of anxiety and slog. Before the predictably impressive results arrived, she was full of self-doubt. Had she worked hard enough to deserve it? Would she fail herself and her family? What would happen afterwards? My son, who is at university, listened to her concerns with a slight smirk, then tipped back his chair: "I am going into the medical profession too," he said, yanking the conversation back to himself. "But I won't have to work as hard as you and I can earn a lot more money. I am going to volunteer myself for medical research."

Here was a shining illustration of the boygirl divide that so worries teachers and parents. My niece, self-critical and conscientious; my son, wanting attention and glory but unwilling to undertake a long and boring journey to obtain it. If boys can't be top of the class any more, they won't settle for second best. They would rather be class clowns at the bottom.

The change in status has happened in a generation. Universities used to record a ratio of two men to one woman. Now it is three women to two men.

Girls also outnumber boys in the league of the country's brightest pupils.

By the age of 11, girls make up 52 per cent of England's brightest pupils.

At 16, this goes up to 60 per cent.

Since there is no evidence that boys are becoming genetically less intelligent, educationists have concluded that schools and universities are tailored to suit girls rather than boys. Teachers are more likely to be female. School playing fields have been sold off. Crucially, competition is discouraged and it is hard to motivate boys without it. Boys seek adventure and are less self-analytical. A teenage boy I know lists his interests as football, rugby and military history. For A-level English he was given Virginia Woolf to study. I found him head in his hands, struggling with his essay title on the theme of menstruation.

The person best placed to champion boys' needs is Boris Johnson, Conservative higher education spokesman. "Why do girls love these epically long, boring books?" he asked recently. He has also warned women that there will be no alpha men for them to marry if they continue to leave boys behind. I was Boris's colleague when he worked at The Daily Telegraph.

Every week he would file his column seconds before the latest possible deadline. I cajoled and threatened. He was keeping sub-editors from their families, stopping the paper from going to press. I would drop his column if he didn't produce it on time. He took no notice because he knew the threats were empty. I would never spike the column because, apart from always being late, it was brilliant.

I realised he could only work creatively in this daredevil way. Boris is intellectually designed for exams. He thrives on risk. Steady coursework would bore him. Sitting still bores him. Empathy bores him. He may speak for education in the Commons but there is no place for him in schools. That is the tragedy for boys.

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