Men are at the start of a long, difficult journey

Women don't measure their life quite so strictly in terms of the wage they command as men do
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The oddest thing about the obsessive, contradictory and slightly insane scrutiny that the tiny shifts in the pattern of GCSE results attract each year, is that while it shouldn't matter so terribly much, it really, really, does. At this stage in proceedings, there are always plenty of experts willing to rubbish the whole system, and pour scorn on the suggestion that any wider conclusions about our society can therefore be drawn from them. I think they are dead right, in theory.

The oddest thing about the obsessive, contradictory and slightly insane scrutiny that the tiny shifts in the pattern of GCSE results attract each year, is that while it shouldn't matter so terribly much, it really, really, does. At this stage in proceedings, there are always plenty of experts willing to rubbish the whole system, and pour scorn on the suggestion that any wider conclusions about our society can therefore be drawn from them. I think they are dead right, in theory.

But in a world of hard fact, exam results are the only thing new entrants to employment have to provide any indication of what 16 years on earth may have taught them. From this – so obsessed are we with money, status, career, capital, consumption – flows much that can make a life, or break it.

In this way, we get the examination system that society deserves. Of course it is not an adequate or helpful measure of many of the human qualities that really matter. Unfortunately though, that seems only appropriate in a society where first among all undertakings in human life is the ability to generate money. It may well be a travesty of the idea of education that it is geared so much to achieving this single end, but all that reflects is the travesty such values make of society as a whole.

There have been times, during the chats with the media that the Education minister Margaret Hodge has undertaken in order to spread the mixed tidings, when she has sounded like she understands this. When discussing the gender gap between boys' results and girls' results, and the inability of the former to make the sorts of improvements that females have been achieving, Ms Hodge has declared that this reflects a "societal" problem.

Then, just when it's time for her to follow up with some intelligent analysis of what the societal problem might be, she'll start going on about how the Government has the whole thing covered, and is presently looking at such things as whether seating pupils "boy, girl, boy, girl" might make that crucial difference.

Political rhetoric is at its most frustrating when politicians are admitting to complex problems, but still clinging to the idea that they can be fixed with insultingly simple solutions. Changes within the classroom can help a bit, but only insomuch as they might insulate school life from the gender conflict of real life more than they at present manage to.

But they're not going to help much. Ever since Labour came to power, it has been tinkering about in the education system, trying to see if a nip here and a tuck there, an initiative here and a procedural change there, can make a decisive dent in the gender gap.

The sad fact is that what is happening in our schools is not happening in a vacuum. Just as the abilities measured by our examination system reflect the over-emphasis we all place on paid work, so the refusal of boys to stand up and be counted for their academic worth straightforwardly reflects the fear that on such a measure, they will be judged and found wanting, not just in school but throughout their lives.

Feminists still have much to fulminate about – such as how women are better qualified in every subject (except maths and physics), but still end up with lower wages and lesser status than men.

But in a bizarre way, there's almost an upside to such iniquities. For alongside more institutionalised discrimination, a contributory factor is that women simply do not measure their life and its value quite so strictly in terms of the wage they can command as men do. This is not surprising as women continue to be primary family carers and home-makers despite their expanded roles as wage earners. Although this means, in very many cases, much more demanding times for women, the idea has been sold to women, by women as the rather more glamorous package that is "having it all".

There may now be some disillusionment with the concept of such ambitions, but one thing in favour of the image of the juggling woman attempting to balance many aspects of a diverse, full life is that it reminds us that there's much, much more to life than that alone.

Meanwhile men, whose precious status as breadwinners has naturally been eroded as women achieve more financial independence, are only now at the beginning of a long journey which must result in them recasting masculinity more widely and inclusively, just as femininity has been redefined in recent decades.

This all may seem a long way from schoolboys failing to pay attention in class, rejecting the rules of school and suffering at exam time because of it. But there are other indications – such as class and ethnicity also being crucial factors in success or failure at GCSE – that there is a causal link between disillusionment with education in one generation, and experience of unemployment in those preceding it. The breakdown of heavy industry, the declining status of manual workers such as train drivers, the dismantling of the apprentice system – all of these have made it harder, particularly for those boys of an unacademic bent, to see where life might be taking them. Meanwhile, an increasing emphasis – much of it chimerical as the skills gap attests – on academic prowess as the be all and end all, adds to the under-confident male child's feeling that there is little that can help him available in the classroom.

Thankfully, there has been some recognition that there is a problem here. Cumbersome as they may be in actual fact, the theoretical presence of vocational qualifications designed to attract boys, and the effort to revive a version of the apprentice system, is a marvellously reassuring step in the right direction.

Practical stuff like this will help a great deal, although young men must also start to grasp that this is just one of their important functions in life. It is time for men to realise that while women can't "have it all", and men can't "have it all" either, they can, if they play their cards right, share quite a lot of it between them.

It's one of the many great triumphs of capitalism that in the latter half of the 20th century changes in employment patterns across genders were attributed to the demands of feminism rather than the demands of market forces. It is darkly amusing too that the men who continue to run the capitalist system are so happy to let the men who have been discarded in response to those demands blame women for their frustrations instead of fixing them.

The only people who are really engaged by questions of 21st century masculinity are the denizens of men's groups. Often they have been propelled into gender politics not by an academic interest in the subject, but because of some usually genuinely unfair incident which has made them feel that "feminism" is the enemy, when actually it is often the failure of men to support each other and their sons enough in a fast-changing world.

Likewise, the boys who play out most nihilistically their feeling that there is no place for them in the world of work, are often also the ones who identify most strongly with sub-cultures which denigrate women. In a nasty vicious circle of blame and self-disgust, the news that the girls in their class are beating them hollow, does not help masculinity to help itself at all.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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