Of Miss Sharp, Susan Plum and some bad boys

15th September 2000 at 01:00
DO something! Or should that read: do something? Either way, it is not a call to action for you, dear reader - proceeding to the end of the column will be quite sufficient, thank you.

But anyone who has been around education for a while will recognise the ritual cry for action that occurs at this time of year with such monotonous regularity. Exam results are out; the silly season has not yet come to an end; and things are stirring once again in schools and colleges after the long summer sleep. So up goes the shout: why doesn't somebody do something?

This year the hullabaloo is all about boys. It is they who must have something "done" about them. Apparently, they haven't been doing enough. Or, rather, not doing it well enough.

In colleges, we are right in the thick of this boy fever. First, girls went racing ahead in GCSE scores. Now they've had the temerity to start doing it at A-level, too. Have boys got worse or is it just that girls have got better? No one is quite sure, but David Blunkett's list of possible somethings to be done includes all-boy classes and the recruitment of more "boy teachers".

Although we are all carrying on as if it has surfaced for the first time, the dynamics of gender in schools and colleges have actually been with us for a long time - possibly ever since girls were first allowed into the classroom.

In the course of a ritual clearout, I recently disinterred an old junior school photograph - a black and white snapshot of the whole class (nearly 40 of us, I notice) arranged in precise rows around the sadist we knew and loved as Miss Sharp.

The class of '59 was pretty much half boys and half girls, which suited Miss Sharp's unbending ideas on classroom management. Boys plural were bad news, so each boy was seated next to a girl of our teacher's choice. Unfortunately (from the male point of view, that is), Miss Sharp's choice was not likely to be your choice, assuming you would have chosen to sit next to a girl at all.

I got Susan Plum, who, looking at her now in her little white socks and summer frock, seems considerably less formidable than the picture I have carried in my head for the past 40 years. Perhaps that was because Susan assumed that our two desks were her two desks and ruled over them with an iron will that Miss Sharp hersef would have admired. Not surprisingly, I rather resented this at the time, little realising that it was, in fact, providing me with an ideal preparation for later life as a married man.

The point, however, is that girls were defined not so much as learners in their own right but as adjuncts to the boys. Their role was to act as "civilisers" - the thinner in the male psychological paint which even at the age of ten seemed to have testosterone as one of its principal ingredients.

That attitude took some time to die, but die it did during the 1980s and 1990s when girls' underachievement in public exams was the "something to be done" of its time. Interestingly, the single-sex solution was advanced here, too. In this case, it seemed to work, particularly in the traditionally male preserves of maths and science.

But does it stand a chance of working the other way round? There was a second school photograph tucked away beneath the first, taken a year later when I had moved on to the local grammar school. Two-thirds of Class 1A were girls, and looking at that dwindling rump of awkward, brilliantined boys, I can remember clearly enough that our "problem" in 1960 was little different to the "problem" of boys today.

The girls applied themselves to their schoolwork. That was what you expected of girls. But, for boys, it was either meant to come effortlessly or it didn't come at all. It wasn't that there was a premium on empty-headedness. No one wanted to be labelled as thick. But it simply wasn't cool to try.

Tormenting the RE teacher about his doubts or screwing down the lid of a desk with an alarm clock set to go off in the middle of English, was what earned you admiration from the "lads". And that was the A-stream of the grammar school - supposedly the intellectual elite of the locality. Dumping us all together in a pit labelled "boys" would surely only have made us worse.

In further education, we have struggled for years to break out of the stereotyped gender divide: to turn out female mechanics and male secretaries to sit alongside their more usual fellows. So while doing nothing might not be an option, setting up quick fixes that turn out to be no fixes just for the sake of doing something shouldn't be one either.

Stephen Jones is a FE lecturer in London

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