March 14, 2003
Girls will be girls and boys will be men

One other Big Issue that I've not mentioned so far this week, which cropped up in my conversations last weekend with my Kent teacher friend, is the matter of gender segregation.

My friend works in a huge boys-only school with nearly two thousand pupils. Discipline-wise and learning-wise it is all over the place, the way he told it. Not wise at all, in other words. But, just across the road is an all-girl school, nearly as big, where things run much more smoothly.

The consensus to the effect that this is exactly what we should expect is one that I've already referred to here. That girls tend to do best in an all-girl school, while boys do worst in an all-boy school, was strongly confirmed by my friend, both from his direct experience, and from the general teacher-gossip he's picked up over the years.

Here is the same fact cluster being referred to by Joan Bakewell, in some comments by her about the St Hilda's College Oxford row. St Hilda's have narrowly voted, again, not to allow men in, and JB is pleased, but fears that the decision may eventually be reversed.

But of course if this prejudice is right that girls need all-girl schools while boys need not-all-boy schools, then something has to give. A commenter on my earlier posting pointed out that "the market would solve it", in the sense that some people care about these things more than others, and the market would enable the necessary trade-offs and compromises to be made. But that is still a compromise.

So here's a possible answer that is not a compromise. Leave the girls in their all-girl schools, unless they are desperate to be one of the boys. But, abandon the idea of educating the great mass of boys in similar places to the girls, or to the places we try to educate them in now. Instead, put them in the company of men. Let them go to work.

What if, in other words, the trouble with all-boy schools is not just that they are all-boy in the sense of lacking girls, but in the sense of lacking human beings of any other kind whatever? – except for a few wretched "teachers", who scarcely count as humans at all, so outnumbered and overwhelmed are they.

If we allowed the boys out to work, they would be much more intensely taught, by a much greater number of men giving them a total of far more adult male attention than they get now from their "teachers".

Actual juvenile work, of the sort that the rest of us actually want to have done, not just trudging through GCSEs, also pulls the economics of this into shape, and pays for the massively increased adult-to-boy ratio that is needed to solve this problem.

Work will also give the boys some money, and more fundamentally some status in the world, such as they can now only carve out for themselves with criminality. Patient and studious boys now survive the long wait for adulthood. Most boys can't manage it without grief to all concerned.

We shouldn't abandon the idea of old fashioned education for boys – with the whole paraphernalia of desks and books and lecturers. But we should feed this into their adolescences gradually, not in an all-or-nothing great glob of academicness which they either stick with all round the clock or are chucked out of for ever.

The typical fourteen year old sould be spending most of his working day on the lower reaches of the adult male pecking order, learning to run a factory, learning to mind the shop or man the phones or guard the territory, making tea for senior bureaucrats and sitting in on the big male arguments in the canteen. He wouldn't be out tormenting the hell out of school geeks or getting the sillier girls into trouble or driving the police crazy, or not as much as he does now. He'd be learning some manners, from people he'd be willing to listen to. And learning a lot else besides.

Then, when our later-teenage box-shifters and till-minders and tea-makers get a bit older and can see the point of it, welcome them back into the academies, if they want to come back or if they haven't by now joined an academy in the real world, like a company training scheme.

Forcing young male noses into books when they want to be flexing their muscles and minds outside is a waste of everyone's time. Chucking them out of their schools at exactly the moment when, if nature had been allowed more naturally to take its course, they might have got interested in such stuff, is a further huge cruelty, a life destroyer.

Reversing this idiotic procedure would give the boys a chance to sample adult life before making irrevocable decisions about it. They could shift boxes, and see the world, and talk the world through with the older guys, and then later, make some intelligent educational moves.

My Kent school teacher friend added another crucial item of evidence. He reported that the Daily Mail and its readers are also right about the vital importance of a father. The correlation, he says between boys who's parents don't attend in a respectable male-female duet on parents' day but who only have a mother show up, or nothing at all, is so huge as to be unignorable. Boys with mums and dads behave during their early teens, during The Wait. Boys with only mums are the ones who are out of control. The present government policy is to fine our lone mum if her son misbehaves. Well, that might work, if the son truly loves his mother enough not to want to get her into trouble. But what if it doesn't work?

The real answer is to lower the legal school leaving age and legal working age, for boys (but for girls too if that's what it takes), to thirteen. (While we're at it, I'd give them all the vote.) The next best thing to a real dad is not a succession of "uncles", or the intrusive power of the state; it is male authority outside the failing home.

I am of course thinking aloud here. But that's all part of what I started this blog to do.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:07 PM
Category: Boys will be boys