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Whatever happened to the lively lads?;Primary

Boys like to run and shout, says Annabelle Dixon, who argues that their exuberance must be turned to educational advantage if they are not to turn their backs on learning for good

Primary schools ooze with feminine culture. Children are expected to be orderly, quiet, obedient and tidy, to sit still for long periods and strive enthusiastically for gold stars, smiley faces or "I have been helpful today" badges, even at age five.

Boys, rightly, no longer perceive schools as being "boy-friendly", even from the early years. They know it's feminine because all their teachers are women, and women, including their mothers, seem to prefer these qualities. Few young boys share these priorities.

Changes in primary schools over the past 10 years have helped create an anti-school culture among boys. Teachers have been told it's just a matter of expectations and that boys can be just as quiet, orderly and tidy as girls. Some are, through natural inclination or because outward difference incurs teacher antagonism. But resentment is never far from the surface.

Some boys are immune to such antagonism. They prefer to chat with their friends, show a disinclination to learn, and become easily and rowdily aggressive. They can quickly form a group and the seeds of a "laddish" counter-culture are sown.

Why did we hear less about such disaffection in the Fifties and Sixties, when primary education bore many resemblances to today's, with its emphasis on the acquisition of secretarial skills and whole-class teaching?

A clue may lie in the reminiscences of an acquaintance who describes her primary school of those years as being organised into the A stream - "definites", who would pass the 11-plus without difficulty; the B stream - "maybes"; the C stream - "no-hopers"; and "12 boys who used to go off with Mr Jackson to do woodwork". Evidence suggests schools are increasingly using such streaming again. But Mr Jackson's 12 seem to exist no longer. Or, if they do, they certainly don't do woodwork - popular, as it happens, across all ability ranges. In fact, they are probably doing more of what they have already failed at.

It is not difficult to see why - the publication of league tables has created a climate in which professional expertise and experience is being overlooked. This expertise strongly suggests that some children, particularly boys, could blossom, given alternative ways of "accessing" the curriculum - alternatives that might be unwelcome or misunderstood because they do not fit the current notion of what schooling should look like. But carrying on with the present situation risks causing real harm.

Unfortunately, young teachers can no longer depend on being taught the physiological determinants of behaviour and attitude, the neurological aspects of child development to do with attention and motivation, and the need for children to be physically active if they are to achieve mental and physical maturity.

So could the roots of disaffection lie in the young children's decreasing range of physical activities? Are their consequent physical frustration and subsequent restlessness and lack of attention breeding grounds for disaffection? Inspectors have frequently counselled against the unsuitability of the average static, desk-based, school regime for four-year-olds. They, and many teachers, know it is often unsuitable for five and six-year-olds too. Many other countries, including our economic competitors, do not start formal schooling until children are seven.

Young children whose daily timetable is genuinely balanced between various forms of physical activity and quieter "sitting down" periods are far more prepared to engage in the latter if they've had enough of the former.

Research suggests boys have a greater propensity to restlessness than girls, and find it harder, at least initially, to concentrate for long periods. If that is not taken into account when planning the timetable, a downward spiral starts - the boys start to be called "inattentive", "unco-operative" or "lazy", and react by conforming to such descriptions. The liveliness, spontaneity and general exuberance of many boys is frequently seen as a tiresome liability (especially if primary tests have become the ultimate priority) rather than traits that can be turned to educational advantage.

But if boys are introduced gradually and appropriately to academic learning and, as importantly, see it as relevant to their lives, they will come to see the world of learning as meaningful. For example, boys should be allowed to write about their own ideas rather than copy sentences out of a workbook - tasks girls often prefer, being noticeably adept at "playing at schools".

The proper education of children, understanding the word in its wider sense, means the education of a child who should eventually become a concerned and responsible citizen. Make boys feel excluded from the start of their schooling, and disillusion and disaffection all too soon put down ineradicable roots. These are fed by an unsuitable and unimaginatively delivered curriculum. Is it surprising that they start to reject a society that seems to be offering them so little?

Annabelle Dixon is TES Lucy Cavendish research fellow and a former primary deputy head

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