Why I got it wrong about boys and girls

29th May 2009 at 01:00
A different approach to equality is needed to address young males' problems with education and life

Mea culpa. As a headteacher back in the 1980s, I berated the reception teacher for putting pictures of rockets and tractors beside the boys' coatpegs, and flowers and bunnies next to the girls'. And in the early 1990s, I was general editor of a reading scheme for which authors were instructed to include "strong female protagonists" (with the unintended consequence that almost all the male characters were weaklings, villains or buffoons).

You see, I was a baby boomer, just the right age to expect as good an education as any man and the right to lifelong economic independence. So, of course, I went along with most of the feminist lines of the times. (I'm glad to say I drew the line at boiler suits.) But after spending the past three years researching a book on boys, I'm feeling a tad shamefaced about these earlier attempts at social engineering.

Isobel, the reception teacher, argued the toss about the peg pictures. "Honestly, Sue," she said. "They're different. Little boys like rockets and little girls like bunnies."

"Well, of course they will if that's what we give them," I replied.

Twenty five years on, it's been a bit of a facer to discover that, despite all our gender equality policies, little boys still prefer things that go brrm brrm, and little girls like soft furry animals.

As for the reading scheme, I'm now wondering whether our zealotry just convinced boys that reading was a girly skill so they might as well not bother.

Certainly boys' literacy skills haven't kept pace with girls' over the past 15 years. And that might help to explain why the professions are today awash with strong female protagonists (medicine, veterinary science, the law and secondary teaching are predominantly female) while the dole queues are full of sad male Neets (out of work, training or education).

It's not that I've ceased to support female equality - I certainly want my daughter, and my daughter's daughters to have the opportunities that were open to me. It's just that, after wading through the research and interviewing scores of boys and men, I've become just as committed to male equality. And in 21st century Britain, I think boys have been getting a worse deal.

It starts from birth. Baby boys are developmentally behind girls from the start, and probably need more "mothering" to help initiate them into the human race. But changes in working patterns, family structures and attitudes to childhood mean we don't value early childcare. By failing to recognise what women contributed to the social mix in the past, we've ceased to value care (and it's not just boys that suffer - it's all of us).

As babies turn into toddlers and preschoolers, boys' play is different from girls'. No matter how hard liberal, middle-class parents and teachers try to make them act the same, children behave naturally.

This means boys need to run and jump and scramble and play-fight, but there's seldom space for this in an urban nursery school, not to mention the health and safety red tape with which we tie down our children.

Lack of opportunity for active play compounds the developmental differences between boys and girls. So, once formal learning starts, boys are at a disadvantage. Asking them to read and write before they're capable of sitting still, holding a pencil or tracking their eyes along a row of print is frankly cruel. When they reasonably object to this treatment, we call them failures, give them catch-up lessons or - if they can't hack it - diagnose special educational needs. Four times as many boys as girls are labelled with ADHD; last year half a million prescriptions for Ritalin were written in the UK.

It's not just the schools' fault, of course. Society becomes less boy-friendly as the years go by. The more built-up and traffic-ridden our city streets, the less welcome children are to indulge in free-range outdoor play, which is particularly important for an active, risk-taking young man.

Instead, they lead a screen-based, sedentary existence, bad for physical and mental health - and many boys appear to have adjusted to it. "I love being a 21st century boy," said one of my pasty-faced little interviewees. "I sit in my bedroom and watch TV or play computer games. And if I get hungry, I text down to my mum and she brings me up a pizza."

So they're being battery-reared at home, ready victims for the media and marketing influences that increasingly target the least desirable psychological traits of each gender with their culture of 21st century cool. And at school - that ever-more female dominated environment - they're subject to a regime based on tests, targets and league tables which, thanks to the government and Ofsted, is more about ticking boxes than creative thinking and intellectual curiosity.

Teachers try, of course. I've lost count of the studies I ploughed through on raising boys' achievement. But the past three years have convinced me it's time to stop obsessing about raising boys' achievement and concentrate on raising boys.

To keep the girls on their upward trajectory, we need to consider how we raise them. Boys and girls are different. Equality means recognising these differences - especially in early childhood - then helping both boys and girls develop "roots to grow and wings to fly".

- '21st Century Boys: how modern life is driving them off the rails and how we can get them back on track' by Sue Palmer (Orion, Pounds 14.99)

Sue Palmer, former headteacher and author of '21st Century Boys' and 'Toxic Childhood'.

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