The male liberator's sit-down protest
TALL, gangly and gently spoken, it's hard to believe Steve Biddulph could be a hate figure. But think about what he is saying and it's easy to grasp why some people could come to detest him, especially if they are female.
"School is not good for boys," he says. "They have become feminised."
"Feminised" is an ugly word but it inspires eloquence in Biddulph, a 45-year-old Australian family therapist and the world's leading exponent of "men's liberation". Yesterday saw the publication of his latest book, Manhood.
"Of course I'm in favour of equal opportunities but treating boys and girls the same has had awful consequences. It was a good idea gone wrong. And we have the evidence of boys' underachieving to prove it."
Steve Biddulph is so famous down under that he's been dubbed "the male equivalent of Germaine Greer". His million-selling The Secret of Happy Children has made him in the States - if not a household name - a must for every early morning chat show. And now he's over here. If chief inspector Chris Woodhead is not careful Biddulph could soon replace him as the man most teachers love to hate.
Which would be a little unfair because he is, he insists, on the teachers' side. It's not the fault of women that they dominate infant and primary schools. It's just unfortunate.
"We have to start with the facts. Not only are boys in Britain, Australia and the US doing much worse, educationally, than girls; they are two to three times more likely to die before they get out of their teens. Being a boy is a health risk. It could be suicide, a fight, a road accident.
"Boys develop neurologically at a much slower pace than girls. As the male foetus grows the brain slows down. Boys don't catch up with girls until they are about 19. At age five there is a six months to one-year gap between the motor skills of boys and those of girls. Yet they are the skills needed for sit-down schooling. No wonder boys fall behind so quickly."
His solution is simple: "Boys should not start school at the same time as girls. They should be at least a year behind. It's not as radical a suggestion as it sounds because if you look at most of Europe you see that they don't start primary education until seven. The result is that boys and girls perform more or less the same. Although it might be the case that if the girls started earlier they would do better."
And then there is the woman teacher problem. "It's hopeless at the moment. There are far too many women teachers. In some of the black ghettos in the United States they are experimenting with a regulation guaranteeing that at least every third primary school teacher is male."
If he sounds a little like an unreconstructed male chauvinist he can, in his defence, turn to biology: "The average boy has 25 per cent more red blood cells and 30 per cent more muscle than a girl. Girls are built for the sit-down education stuff, boys need action."
He accepts that, short term. there is no possibility of keeping boys at home for an extra couple of years but has a suggestion that would have Baden-Powell's heartiest approval: "In Australia we are experimenting with starting the school day with 20 minutes of physical activity. It has led to a marked improvement in the boys' behaviour."
Biddulph realises that he could seem impossibly reactionary. "No way is that the case. I think the Women's Liberation Movement has achieved marvellous success. I don't want a return to the bad old days. It's just that men have lost a sense of what they are."
And he doesn't want to drive women out of the classroom. "I think they should be moving out of primary schools into the secondary sector. It's terrible that the few men in primary schools seem to get all the top jobs. Actually I think all primary teachers deserve at least a 10 per cent pay increase regardless of gender."
"Manhood" by Steve Biddulph, was published this week by Hawthorn Press. Price Pounds 9.95