Everyone seems to have an opinion about why boys lag behind girls in schools. Grumpy parents of a boisterous eight-year-old boy ask me "What do you expect when Tim never sees a male teacher?" Others point the finger at female heads who do not understand boys. Educationalists indict a peer culture that stigmatises learning and achievement. Some condemn dysfunctional masculine attitudes that devalue learning.
Meanwhile, social scientists point out that, with the decline of traditional male jobs, boys no longer regard schooling as a passport to a career. And, last week, Dr Tony Sewell, an educational consultant, claimed that the problem is that schools have become "too feminine for boys".
In his speech to a National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers conference in London, Sewell argued that the time had come for schools to cultivate more masculine values and place a greater emphasis on competition and outdoor adventure.
The debate about children's educational performance is important because it informs everyday life both in and out of school. Not surprisingly, virtually every parent has a gender-related story about their school.
When we looked for aJprimaryJfor our son an acquaintance spontaneously offered us a gender-coded tour of our locality. We learned that the female head of the school closest to our house "did not get on with boys". Others informed us of another school where only girls were allowed to get on. One of our neighbours, a single mum with two boys, was categorical that there was only one school in our area "where boys had half a chance".
My partner and I soon learned that local obsession with gender was not confined to anxious parents. At the very first school we visited, a proud teacher boasted of the considerable resources they had devoted to encourage boys' reading skills. There was more than a hint of condescension in this teacher's response when my wife questioned why this support was confined to boys.
The stereotype of underperforming boys is now an integral part of the ethos of schooling. Such stereotypes are transmitted through institutions devoted to the training of teachers and through wider culture. Like all stereotypes they contain some truth but they can also confuse and distract us from how to get the most out of children.
Worse still, the stereotyping of children often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. At a very early phase of their experience in school children swiftly pick up the signal that boys are not expected to do as well as girls.JBy the time they are seven or eight, many children have internalised a culture of differential expectations. Well-meaning teachers inadvertently promote an attitude of low expectations towards the boys in their classrooms.
But everyone plays a part in legitimising the stereotypes. Many parents are all too ready to account for the underperformance of their child through appealing to the gendered stereotype. "He is a real boy" serves as an explanation for a disappointing school result. In previous times, the statement "she is a girl" served to account for the underperformance of female pupils. Today, stereotyping in reverse works to the disadvantage of boys.
Strategies that are focused on helping boys often unintentionally reinforce the problem. "Books for boys" sections in libraries which promote "boy-friendly" material seem to implicitly give up on the idea that it is possible to cultivate a love of reading in boys. Initiatives such as the "Real Men Read" campaign, which aims to question the idea that studying is not "cool", also inadvertently buttress the idea that the problem is with boys. Telling children what's cool and what isn't is not the job of adults.
Challenging them and raising their expectations is.
Calls to make schools less feminine are unlikely to improve the situation.
But there is merit in Sewell's proposal for nurturing competitiveness and leadership in schools. At a time when children's engagement with the world outside is all too infrequent, Sewell's call for introducing outdoor adventure into the curriculum makes sense. But not because it promotes "male" traits but because all children could benefit.
The association of masculinity with practical experiences and competitive outdoor activities is a prejudice comparable to the old conviction that girls needed to engage in needlework and cooking to realise their potential.
The problem is not that schools have become too feminine but that educators appear to lack the cultural and intellectual resources to demand the very best from our children.
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent university