November 05, 2002
Boys Won't Be Girls

For all those who want a cheap and cheerful choice of a few of the day's education stories from the British "electronic print" media I recommend Home Educating House Dad. Michael Peach doesn't always have anything new to say each morning, his last posting having been put up last Wednesday. But every morning, on the left, under "UK Education News", there are new links to British education stories, a decent few of which actually come up when you click on them.

For me, the most interesting one today was this, from the electrified version of the Telegraph.

For some years now, a big theme of British educational commentary has been that school life for girls has been easier than school life for boys, because, basically, teachers have tended not to like boys, and "education" has tended to mean getting them to be girls for the duration. Not surprisingly, many boys who might have done a lot better have wilted or rebelled. But read this:

This year, the boys at Kings' have actually overtaken the girls: 82 per cent gained five top grades, compared with 79 per cent of girls. How has such a transformation come about?

"We have taken the 'laddish' culture of our boys and, instead of quashing it, we have harnessed it to good effect," says Ray Bradbury, the head.

"Boys get as much praise in assembly for their sporting achievements, for example, as do the girls for their gentler pursuits. Successful old boys are invited in to talk about the importance of doing well, and we create an atmosphere of encouragement for boys as well as girls.

"Writing snide, negative comments on boys' reports, which used to be a staff-room sport in some schools, is unacceptable here, because boys have feelings, too.

"Most importantly, we have identified the boys who are in danger of under-achieving and we teach them in single-sex groups in English, maths and French, using methods specially adapted for those who can be 'a bit of a handful'."

Ms Parsons, the head of French, is an expert practitioner of these methods. Once her boys are settled, they work on tasks in short bursts. In the lesson I watched, they were given French phrases and had to write and rehearse sketches, and then perform them to the class. All were involved, either acting or correcting each other's pronunciation, and there was no sign of self-consciousness.

Or, as they used to say before it became incorrect, Boys Will Be Boys. Now, saying this seems to be becoming correct again. In general, the notion of an inborn, genetically programmed, gender distinctive human nature is now reasserting itself. (See for example the most recent book of Steven Pinker. Here's a link to a recent interview with Pinker.)

Nevertheless, there remains something rather manipulative about all this. My educational ideal (and if I didn't have at least one of those I wouldn't be doing this now would I?) is for children not to be manipulated at all, and in the meantime to be manipulated a hell of a lot less. The danger of such changes in educational fashion as this one is that one annoying over-generalisation will merely be replaced by another perhaps more accurate one, but still an over-generalisation. Boys Should Be Girls favours one sort of boy, and Boys Will Be Boys might make life nastier for such a boy. Because, one of the most definite features of human nature is that it varies from individual to individual, and no one atmosphere will suit all individual pupils.

But, as manipulation goes, this sounds not so bad. (Ms. Parsons sounds like she won't soon be forgotten!) And good or bad, I hope you agree that it is at least something to think about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:43 PM
Category: Boys will be boys