Dominic Lawson: Boys: learn from your sisters

The biggest single factor stopping more men from less affluent backgrounds going to leading universities must be the soaring numbers of places going to middle-class ladies
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The Independent Online

One of this newspaper's readers was most disturbed by the choice of picture on last Friday's Education page covering the nation's A-level results. The next day's letters page contained the following from Mr Gyles Cooper: "I am very disappointed by the photograph – the cliché of pretty white girls celebrating their A-level results. We are given this year after year, ignoring the fact that many candidates are not photogenic, are not white, are not female and may have nothing to celebrate."

Well, it might have been more imaginative to have printed instead a picture of grim-faced non-white males selected for their lack of photogenic qualities, but it would have been no more representative of reality, besides being less inspiriting. For the single most observable trend in British education, over the past 30 years at least, has been the gradual outclassing of young men by young women. It has reached the stage where half the female population is passing through higher education, but only 37 per cent of their male contemporaries are achieving the same status.

This is causing increasing consternation, and is, apparently, one reason why the new A* grade was introduced: it was designed in part to favour the more improvisational male style, by stressing less the value of coursework and continual assessment (at which girls do, in aggregate, much better). Yet still, in the first year of this experiment, the girls have done proportionately better than boys in acquiring the coveted A*s.

Most of the political noise about disparities in educational outcomes continues to be about the gulf between the public and the private sector. It is no accident that in the week of the A-level results, Nick Clegg made a lengthy speech proclaiming the Coalition's main long-term objective to be to create a more "socially mobile" nation, and he backed that up by announcing the appointment of the former Labour cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, to the role of social mobility "czar". This initiative had been carefully prepared to coincide with the annual why-oh-why outburst about "falling social mobility" in the week that the universities reveal who, and who has not, been offered places.

Thus, the Deputy Prime Minister declared last week that: "A disproportionate number of university students come from the middle and upper classes ... we need to attack educational apartheid". Disproportionate to what, exactly? Certainly not to A-level results or even academic potential. Our leading universities, quite rightly, try to take into account the greater difficulties facing those applying from what Alastair Campbell once described as "bog-standard comprehensives", yet they are, in the end, trying to find the candidates who will do best once in higher education – and they do a pretty good job of it.

This can be seen in the fact that the most recent research from Oxford and Cambridge showed that the A-level scores of those graduating between 1976 and 2002 were exactly predictive of the final degree results. If those from the state sector had been discriminated against during the entry process, then one would expect them, as a whole, to do proportionately better than their rivals from the private sector in their final degree examination. As the Cambridge University vice-chancellor Alison Richard pointed out: "We try to reach out for the best students regardless of background. But promoting social mobility is not our core mission, which is to provide an outstanding education within a research setting."

If the proportion of young men from less affluent backgrounds attending the Russell Group of leading universities has not been as high as our politicians say they want – although, in fact, it has risen a little over the past 10 years – then the single biggest factor must surely be the soaring proportion of places going to what we might describe as middle-class young ladies.

Fortuitously, our current Universities minister, David Willetts, has made a detailed study of this phenomenon. In his final months of opposition, Willetts produced a highly regarded account of the baby-boom generation, The Pinch, which contained a chapter entitled "Schools and Social Mobility". Willetts' thesis is that "Feminism has trumped egalitarianism". While emphasising that he is "not trying to turn the clock back" to the days before women were given equal access to higher education, Willetts asserts that "One of the effects of this transformation of opportunities for women has been ... to reduce levels of social mobility in Britain. In the past, the exclusion of women from much of higher education and the labour market, however unfair, did have the effect of softening inequalities."

Willetts is nothing if not a conscientious thinker, but his use of language in this analysis is uncharacteristically sloppy. Inequality is not just a function of income: the rules which prevented equal access to universities for female students were much closer to any definition of "apartheid" – the term Nick Clegg used to sensationalise what he claims to be the "disproportionate" number of university places being achieved by the middle classes.

When I was at Oxford, the head of the (all male) college I attended told me that he "would go to the House of Lords, if necessary" to fight against the law making it mandatory for all such colleges to take female students. Fortunately, he was dissuaded from this quixotic attempt to defy the forces of female emancipation, more than half a century after women had gained equal rights at the ballot box.

Of course, it is not only boys from less prosperous homes whom the middle-class girls are displacing in the race for the glittering academic prizes. They are doing the same to boys educated within the private sector. It is not simply a phenomenon of the so-called underclass that teenage boys more than girls tend to fall into ambitionless stupefaction. The same tendency is observable at the nation's private schools. The head of Wellington college, Anthony Seldon, told the Observer that "Particularly with boys, I would say that if goals are unclear then it is much harder to enthuse them ... My own sense and experience is that girls are more intrinsically motivated."

Seldon feels that this male adolescent ennui could be reduced by "positive psychology", or what some call "self-esteem programmes". This was dismissed by Professor James Arthur of Birmingham University: "When you think about boys and disengagement, a lot of schools go in for this business of self-esteem programmes ... Unfortunately, this also tends to give them totally unrealistic expectations. The fact is, we are lying to these children. The realities of the world are greatly different from what they are told. And that shock is hard for them to deal with."

If anything, it is not a lack of self-esteem which sees the boys lag behind the girls, but the opposite. The brighter young women of my acquaintance seem, as a rule, to have much less self-confidence than their male contemporaries of no greater brain-power – and it is that nagging sense of relative intellectual inadequacy which drives them on.

Why that should be so is a question to which nobody has a conclusive answer. Whatever the reason, it sends a stark message to the young male population: look at your sisters and learn from them.