Any parent will recognise Peter Smith’s assessment of the boys he teaches at Hampton School in south-west London: ‘Boys are like greyhounds. They love the chase and the race, and they don’t care if the prize is a fake rabbit.’
Mr Smith had invited me into one of his English classes at this single-sex private secondary school to illustrate the point.
The boys, aged 13 and 14, were set against each other in a timed test involving the rearranging of jumbled lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet. The prize for the first one to achieve this was a blackberry-flavoured cough sweet.
Noisy consultation ensued as Mr Smith walked around the class, giving clues, egging on pupils and calling out the time remaining. He stopped by my desk: ‘It is noisy and messy looking, but they are engaged because they are competing. They are not sitting there listening to me preach at them.’
Mr Smith, in his 50s, had spent years teaching in the state system before coming to Hampton. He has seen the way boys are being let down by the education system.
It is a view which is being heard time and again, from suburban dinner tables to the highest realms of academia. There have been several recent reports of boys failing in schools – a crisis which threatens to create an unemployable generation.
This week, Ofsted inspectors called for more father figures in schools because so many boys do not have a male role model in their family. But the number of male head teachers in state schools has fallen in a decade from 50 per cent to 39per cent.
‘It’s crucial we get effective role models for the next generation. Male heads can help provide authority figures for children who desperately need boundaries and leadership,’ says Tory education spokesman Michael Gove.
There are several other factors which work against boys succeeding in the education system. At the heart of the problem is a failure to accept a simple truth: boys and girls have differing aptitudes and needs at school.
Peter Smith used to teach at a comprehensive that decided to separate the sexes because the boys’ progress had been ‘very slow’.
‘In the girls’ class, I felt superfluous,’ he told me. ‘The girls knew what they had to do and ploughed through the text methodically.
‘In the boys’ class, I became the leader of the wolf pack. I was asked about everything. Away from the girls, the boys wanted competition and movement. To tell a girl to sit down and write is one thing; to expect a boy to do this is another.’
When children were taught together, boys were distracted by the need to show off and were embarrassed to ask for help
In short, boys and girls see things differently, learn differently and respond differently. This is obvious to parents, but apparently a mystery to the architects and stewards of our education system.
The problem is apparent at third level. A government report last week found that while women were in a minority in universities in 1992, by last year the proportion of male undergraduates had fallen to 35 per cent.
Women get more Firsts, debunking the theory that men are risk-taking high-fliers who get the top grades.
So how did it come to this? There is the fact that teaching is becoming an all-female profession.
Research shows women outnumbering men by 13 to one in some areas. One in ten primary schools has no male teachers. In some areas, fewer than 10 per cent of primary teachers are men.
Figures from the most recent teacher-training intake show there are 26,217 women compared to just 9,375 men. At primary level, the difference is more marked, with 2,301 men compared to 14,183 women.
The lack of males in primary schools is thought to be having a serious effect on boys, because of the number of family break-ups with the mother left ‘holding the baby’.
‘If boys don’t have fathers, they look to the school for male role models,’ says Professor John Howson, an education expert and former government adviser on teacher supply.
‘If they have no male role model at school, then they look to other boys and violent characters on TV.’
Over-zealous child protection laws have discouraged men from working with children.
‘The only adults pictured holding the hands of young boys today are Premiership footballers as they emerge from the tunnel,’ says Professor Howson. A survey by the Training and Development Agency for Schools found that half of children have no contact with male teachers between the ages of five and 11, despite a clear parental preference – 75 per cent – to have men as well as women teachers.
Allied to this problem of a lack of male role models in schools is the details of what boys are taught.
Many would argue that the main cause of their under-achievement is the feminised curriculum and exam system, with its concentration on assessment and coursework (which tends to favour girls), at the expense of fact-based learning and sudden death exams (which favours boys).
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education at Buckingham University, says a premium is placed on methodical, consistent application, at which girls excel, rather than the competition and risk taking for which boys have a biological programming.
Curriculum content has changed, too. Learning dates and the figures behind the Reformation in Britain, for example, has been replaced by learning, or guessing, what people in that age may have ‘felt’.
Social issues such as sexism, disability, ethnicity and poverty are given equal billing to facts, arguments and the achievements of great men and women.
My four-year-old son returned home recently with a book about dogs and cats. On the last page we are introduced to the owner of the pets – an Asian girl in a wheelchair.
A story about reading, counting and animals is thus transformed into one about minorities and disability. This might be socially inclusive, but is it the best way of learning to read?
Another turn-off, many teachers have told me, is the dullness of the curriculum, partly through its subjugation to political correctness. One English teacher said that much of the set poetry is uninspiring in its worthiness.
Contemporary poetry might be politically correct, he said, but it does little to fire the imagination of boys who react better to Tennyson’s The Charge Of The Light Brigade or the World War I poets.
Ann Newstead, 36, couldn’t agree more. She became so disillusioned with the education of her 11-year-old son Josh that she took him out of the state system and began teaching him – and his brothers Sam, nine, and William, four – at their home in Orpington, Kent.
‘Josh didn’t want to read because the books he was given at seven or eight were aimed at girls,’ she says.
‘He didn’t want to read about Mary and Mo going to the shops; he wanted books about steam engines and space – subjects which really interest him.
‘If they gave boys books about football players, they’d be far more switched on. Josh, like so many boys, was being alienated from education.’
Why has the curriculum been taken so far in the other direction?
‘In the Eighties, the priority was to make schools girl-friendly,’ says Professor James Tooley of Newcastle University, author of The Miseducation Of Women.
‘And none of the feminists cared a fig about the effects these changes to the curriculum and ethos of schools might have on boys, who, it was thought, would be happy with whatever changes were brought in to help their disadvantaged and deprived sisters.’
The sweeping changes to the curriculum began to hit home in 2000, when girls pulled off the hat trick of out-performing boys in GCSEs, A-levels and at university.
Two years ago, 53 per cent of boys achieved at least five good GCSEs, compared with 63 per cent of girls.
Boys make up a majority of the 20 per cent of pupils who can’t read properly by the age of 11, and research shows they are likely to fall further behind by the age of 16.
Here, too, part of the problem is a simple failure to accept that the sexes are different. One teacher in the state system, who declined to be named, said the Government’s target-driven obsession requires boys to learn to write at five, before their fine motor skills are advanced enough to hold a pencil.
‘The difference is that if a boy can’t hold a pencil, he gives up, exasperated, and is reluctant to revisit this area of failure. If a girl has trouble, it’s hardwired into her mindset to persevere until she gets it right.’
It’s something barrister Annabel Goldman, 35, has seen with her son Reuben, now 11.
‘Boys are different from girls, and you have to accept that,’ she says. ‘Reuben is a bright, normal boy, but when he was five I was called in to see his head because he had been given detention.
‘His crime? He was making frog noises when all the children had to sit and listen to a story. He could not physically sit still. So he got in trouble.’
This brings us to what I believe is the other major cause of boys failing in school: the loss of a rigorous and demanding sporting life.
Sport encourages competitiveness and, perhaps more importantly, teaches young men how to lose as well as how to win.
Despite government efforts at regulation, school playing fields are being sold off at an alarming rate – as many as 500 a year – and it is increasingly rare for pupils to fulfil the minimum requirement for sporting activity: two hours a week.
Many sporting activities are remodelled so taking part is seen as more important than winning.
At one sports day, my son was presented with a rosette that read ‘Participant’. I would have preferred it if he had been made to come to terms with the fact that he had come last in a race.
Biologically, boys are designed to run and play. Males have larger hearts and a biological predisposition, in tune with the hunter gatherer instinct, towards flooding themselves with adrenaline, which then has to be worked off.
Joanne Fowler, 39, was so horrified at the lack of sport as well as the lax discipline at the state school her 12-year-old son Michael was destined to attend in Warrington, Cheshire, that she placed him in the private sector.
‘There was no competitive sport at his state school, but at The Grange independent school there’s so much. They play football, rugby or cricket every day and he is desperate to join the school rowing team,’ she says.
‘The difference is in the motivation: there are many inspirational male teachers and he really looks up to them. The children have such a good relationship with the staff. Discipline is strong, but there’s no shouting; they are controlled with humour and intelligence.’
Letting off steam
Given that boys make up the bulk of students with disciplinary problems – 80 per cent of excluded pupils are boys – it is strange that the system deprives male students of the chance to let off steam on the sports field.
School trips geared towards adventure and physical challenges are less common, thanks to increased safety regulations and the growing compensation culture.
That fear of risk and the desire to wrap children in cotton wool have dismayed Annabel Goldman.
‘At six, boys have a testosterone rush and they want to roar and tumble like lion cubs,’ she says.
‘My son Reuben was always being told off, believe it or not, for “running in the playground”. Apparently, it was against health and safety rules. If it was even just spitting with rain, they weren’t allowed out, so all the boys had this raging energy they needed to get rid of. His state primary school offered one hour of PE a week: what good was that?’
Is there any prospect of the Government addressing how boys are educated?
Earlier this year, a government review headed by the head of the education watchdog Ofsted called for urgent action to tackle boys’ underachievement.
In a departure from the past, the report recognised that girls and boys approach schoolwork in fundamentally different ways.
The report recommended that teachers should use more active methods to help boys learn to read, and that tests needed to be made more competitive, with sports coach- style feedback where the teacher tells a student precisely where he has gone wrong.
At least this is a sign that the differences between boys and girls are at last being recognised by the architects of the education system.
Unless schools start changing the way they teach boys, our education system might achieve what the shriller element of the feminist movement was unable to: a move beyond equality of the sexes to the marginalisation of men.