It is boys' potential for achievement that needs to be explored now, says Roger Mason, rather than glooming over the statistics of failure
I KNEW when I took over the headship of a small comprehensive for boys, in the non-Georgian part of Bath, that there would be challenges. January 1998 was a time of gales and damage, but I was unprepared for the storm of criticism boys were to suffer later that year.
As Education Secretary David Blunkett's national performance targets began to seem ever more precarious, and with his pledge that he will resign if they are not met, the accusing finger was pointed straight at boys. Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, even went on record to say that working-class boys were one of the nation's most serious education problems.
I happen to believe (to generalise in a way I will shortly condemn) that boys are great, they can and often do learn effectively, can be sensitive and can and do achieve extraordinary things. Where then is the problem?
The approach we adopt at Culverhay school might account for this heretical optimism. We concentrate on achievement and leave the Woodhead style of naming and shaming aside. We differentiate so that we can spot the richness of what each boy brings to education. Each boy has individual targets so that he is essentially competing against himself in the kind of "personal best" terms of athletics. Progress against these targets is monitored so that we can intervene if things slide and so that we know the potential even if the boy tries to hide it for an easy life.
We encourage sensitivity and responsibility in a range of ways, including a hugely popular Youth Action Group working in our community. We celebrate the positive virtues of maleness. We love them when they run fast, tackle well, and win in the last minute against the odds. There are boys who read avidly, write elegantly and solve problems in a trice.
Boorish laddishness remains the enemy in school as it does in the street. It is a self-perpetuating delusion to think this appeals to the majority of boys any more than some of the verbal laceration that passes for "girl-talk" is attractive to most girls.
For me the message of the feminist movement is that women are diverse and each one needs the space to achieve an appropriate destiny. The opposite is happening to boys. Pundits are lumping them all together under the heading "problem" or else offering unacceptable dualities such as "macho" or "new man".
We need many more high-profile role models of successful, articulate men who don't just appear in magazines but who work in the community and in schools helping to take teenage boys further than their fathers can. Lots of schools have excellent mentoring schemes involving adults from industry or commerce working alongside pupils. This could be extended if industry itself recognised the urgency more widely.
We should have much more competitive sport in junior schools, and more male teachers there too. Sport can offer some boys a channel for self-esteem at a time when biology sometimes gives the girls an early advantage in the virtues that school rewards.
A more even playing field in the examination system should be created. Do we really want to say that neatness is more important than content, and that application should always carry more marks than inspiration? When people say boys don't read they really mean that many boys don't voluntarily read fiction. How many boys must have been puzzled by this precedence of make-believe over fact, puzzled by the injunction to put The Angling Times away and get out Jane Eyre?
We need to see what works and extend it by looking at schools where boys do well and spread the practice. We have all benefited from the work of Alistair Smith and Geoff Hannan on the teaching and learning styles that work well with boys and which play to their skills and predilections. We hear a lot about needing boys to develop articulate extended language and less about girls having to develop risk-taking and competitive strategies. We also need to study those boys who buck the trends, in order to unlock the secret of their individuality.
I don't know whether boys have suffered as much or more than girls from the "atomisation" of our society. Perhaps their development cycle means that divorce, the absence of an extended family and high male unemployment catches them at the wrong time. What has been the effect on boys of the financial and employment pressures on their mothers?
It would be fairer and less hypocritical to be clear about what, as a society, we want from men. What balance should there be between the virtues of physical and intellectual strength, what balance between sensitivity and single mindedness? A consensus would leave our boys less confused.
Perhaps boys and girls do learn differently but the tremendous advances girls have achieved over the past 50 years were not the product of the chief inspector saying girls couldn't do science as well as boys or girls had an inherent problem learning about computers.
Women still have some way to drive their liberation but they flourished on the encouragement of those who cared and who saw them as individuals rather than as gender statistics. Leave the boys alone, or better still come and join those of us who are working hard to help them succeed.
Roger Mason is headteacher at Culverhay school, a boys' comprehensive in Bath