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Don't teach boys to be like girls.

By Nicola Pearson 8th July 2008

If you were an energetic nine-year-old boy who loved school, did your best but also loved charging about, trying to beat your friends at every game possible, imagine the hell of our currrent state school system where ball games are banned from the playground in case someone gets hurt, there is no outside play in bad weather and you are constantly in trouble for being too competitive because winning is not what it's about. And, worse, Jamie Oliver fruit smoothies have replaced sponge pudding in your school dinner, so you're starving by two o'clock.

Sue Palmer is a former head teacher, literacy adviser and the author of 21st Century Boys. She says it is a biological necessity that boys run about, take risks, swing off things and compete with each other to develop properly. “If they can't, a lot of them find it impossible to sit still, focus on a book or wield a pencil,” she says, “so their behaviour is considered ‘difficult', they get into trouble and tumble into a cycle of school failure.”

Boys are three times as likely as girls to need extra help with reading at primary school, and 75 per cent of children supposedly suffering from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are male. “We are losing boys at a rate of knots, particularly in literacy,” Palmer says, “because at some point in the past 30 years, masculinity became an embarrassment.”

Research by Simon Baron-Cohen, a respected Cambridge professor, that began as an investigation into autism, puts a solid case for biological male/female differences in the brain, with boys tending to be “systematisers” and girls “empathisers”. This explains why boys generally are less keen on reading and comprehension, and lag behind girls in literacy. A lot of boys find it easier to explain the workings of a watch than to discuss how a character in a story is feeling. “But now,” says Palmer, “apart from the very bright ones, boys aren't even doing better at maths and science.”

Some people blame this nosedive, first noticed in the mid-Nineties, on the “feminisation” of education - too many women teachers, girl-friendly classroom environments and modular exam systems that suit girls' study skills but disadvantage risk-takers. “Geniuses are much more likely to be male,” Palmer says, “but if you don't tick the right boxes, you fail.”

There are seven times as many women primary school teachers as men, but Christine Skelton, Professor of Gender Equality in Education at Birmingham University, argues that there have always been far more female teachers than male. “Obviously there are some women who understand active boys, and some men who don't, just as there are energetic girls and inactive boys,” she says.

The current generation of teachers, though, were born and raised in an atmosphere dominated by women's liberation and “non-gender-specific” education that began in the Seventies. Barbies were banned, most protagonists in books were female and there was no tolerance of war or superhero play. As a head teacher, Palmer remembers making her reception teacher remove all the cloakroom pegs that depicted tractors for boys and bunnies for girls.

“The belief was that you were shaped by your environment, and it was the teacher's responsibility to ‘socialise' boys away from their natural inclinations and to encourage girls to study traditionally male subjects such as physics and technology,” she says.

Palmer would never deny that some of it was absolutely necessary - but with movements such as Reclaim the Night, Greenham Common and Gay Pride, groups that offered an alternative perspective to the traditionally dominant male view taking centre stage, masculinity became suspect. “I really think,” she says, “that the almighty cock-up of the sisterhood in the Seventies was that we believed we could turn boys into girls.”

Palmer says that most women are not natural risk-takers, so for teachers who have not helped to bring up brothers and who don't have sons, boys' behaviour can be frightening. “Play-fighting, for example, reaches a peak at age 7 or 8 but is not actually aggressive,” she says. “It's social - it's the way boys get to know each other and see how the other one ticks. A lot of women teachers are horrified when I suggest that they should let boys get on with fighting and shouting because eventually they'll come out the other side and start negotiating.”

Another problem for boys seeking adventure is that, because we live in an increasingly risk-averse society, children are rarely allowed to play unsupervised. When did you last see a group of boys climbing a tree?

“There is a rational fear of increased traffic but also an irrational fear of stranger danger, fanned by media reporting of child abduction,” says Palmer. “Parents are worried about being considered irresponsible, so they never let their children out of their sight.” And because we are not used to seeing boys playing outside, when we do it feels hostile even when what is going on is not particularly boisterous.

Dan Travis, a sports coach, argues that it is very important for boys to muck about on their own. “Coaching is formal and necessary but should only take up 20 per cent of the time they play,” he says. “The informal 80 per cent is where most of the learning and practising occurs - away from adult supervision.”

Travis is running a campaign to bring competition back to school sport. “The Sport for All ethos took hold in the Seventies and never let go,” he says. “Games are only about inclusion, with no winners allowed.” This is disastrous for boys, who need to compete to establish their place in the hierarchy, which is how they organise their friendships and something that they understand from nursery age onwards. It is also bad for sport. Palmer adds that “self-esteem” arrived from America and now no child is allowed to “lose” at anything.

Palmer is not suggesting that boys should be allowed to behave in any way they want. What we need, she says, is to celebrate what makes them boys and help them to understand the things that don't come naturally to them. That means getting them outside more, particularly as space gets squeezed in urban schools. “Not letting boys be boys is not only detrimental to them but also to girls, many of whom become overcompliant with what is considered ‘good' behaviour and could do with a shove outdoors to take more risks,” she says. “I certainly wish that had happened to me.”

Palmer is especially enthusiastic about the few “outdoor nurseries” that we have in this country, and about the Scandinavian system that puts off formal learning until the age of 7 or 8, concentrating instead on playing outside and the development of social skills.

In the ideal Palmer world, everyone would go to a Scandinavian-style school. What we are doing instead is bringing in the Early Years Foundation Stage, a new government framework that becomes law in September. It says that by the age of 5 children should be writing sentences, some of which are punctuated. “That would be impressive for a seven-year-old,” says Palmer. “So rather than tackling the imbalance in the way that we have treated boys for too long, we are going to make them sit still and learn even younger. I'd call that little short of state-sponsored child abuse.”

21st Century Boys will be published by Orion in early 2009

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