Why are people alarmed by the success of girls?

'For many years, we failed to make the most of girls, and squandered the talents of generations of women'
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The Independent Online

Like an icy wind from Norwegian mountains, the A-level sceptics blow their cold breath all over the celebrating teenagers in the summery valleys. How come all these kids, ask the Drummond/Naipaul tendency, are passing more A-levels when everyone knows, of course, that society has been heading downhill since the loss of empire?

Like an icy wind from Norwegian mountains, the A-level sceptics blow their cold breath all over the celebrating teenagers in the summery valleys. How come all these kids, ask the Drummond/Naipaul tendency, are passing more A-levels when everyone knows, of course, that society has been heading downhill since the loss of empire?

My old friend Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors calls it "dumbing down - A-levels are no longer the gold standard they were 20 years ago." She's worried that this confuses employers looking for bright applicants. And a Conservative shadow education person, Tim Boswell - while not wanting to raise the ire of too many parents and young voters by too openly endorsing Lea's sentiments - calls for some kind of inquiry to looks at exams, because, according to him, "it beggars belief that pass rates get better all the time."

Oh yes, another inquiry. Just what we need. Boswell's proposition about belief being beggared certainly indicates that there may have been some lacunae in the education system, round about the time that he was in it. And Ruth Lea's nostalgia for the times when men were tough, beer was strong and exams were unpassable, is peculiar coming from someone who believes that competition improves outcomes. Ruth, I've noticed that the average sixth-former is taller than he or she was in my day. Is this growth devaluing the notion of tallness, thus making it harder for basketball teams to select players?

Allowing for some small easing of A-level standards to take account of the exam's wider role and the expansion of higher education, the main factor behind the improved results was the better performance by girls. The number of girls getting A grades rose from 17.4 per cent last year to 18.1 per cent. The figure for boys was unchanged at 17.5 per cent. Given that girls entered 54 per cent of the A-levels, and also got more B and C grades than boys, Ruth and Tim might have been on safer ground had they binned all the "gold standard" nonsense, and reflected instead on the gender revolution that has - in 20 years - changed our country.

It has been fascinating to watch, one by one, the citadels fall. First girls did better than boys at primary school, and then fell behind in secondary school. The explanation for this was that boys lagged till puberty, and then "naturally" overtook girls. Breasts grow, brain shrinks. Then girls did better at O-levels and at GCSE levels, but boys were ahead at A-level. Why? Because the urge to mate and set up home became stronger in girls in their late teens.

Now that argument is reduced to rubble. Girls were behind in university entrance, now they're not; behind in degrees, now they're not; behind in science subjects (it's the logic that defeats 'em), now they're not. We're told that young men still get more firsts, partly because of a tendency towards genius and innovative thinking that exists disproportionately in males. Vulvas! Within five years women will be out-performing men there, too, or my name's not Davina. Only in one area, science and engineering courses, has there not been significant progress.

There's the trend then. Compared with girls, boys are falling behind. Why? Some educationalists argue that it has been modular courses, course assessment, ways of evaluating that measure solid, week-by-week endeavour rather than pyrotechnic feats of memory, that have led to these feminine advances. So presumably if we went back to three three-hour papers, we would see boys do better? No, I don't believe it either. We are dealing here with a long-term social trend, and we need to know what lies behind it.

With all due respect to my friends in the new Darwinist school, if biology has been an inadequate explanation of female educational performance, then I don't think it'll help us much with the guys either. In other words, I don't think this is a dick thing. What we've seen is a rapid social evolution as girls have become aware of the possibility of careers, have been shown role models, as their own mothers have behaved differently from their mothers, and been exposed to a world where they can no longer depend on men. The intellectual ability of girls and women was, as feminists argued all along, latent. It was awaiting social permission to emerge.

And boys? It isn't a mystery. You only have to stand in the school playground, or listen to your child's tales of who's good and who's bad, or go to kids' parties, or talk to other parents. Who gets the Ritalin? Who gets the detentions? My oldest daughter is, at 10, a child with many interests. She does ballet and Greek dancing after school, learns the piano and swims once a week.

She complains, but she does her homework. Some of her male counterparts, however, simply play football, night after night after night. They begin the day with cartoons, and end it with Gameboys, and they "don't have time" for homework.

I am not at all alarmed by the success of girls. Why would I be? But the Government and some of the teachers' unions are worried by the gender gap. Not least because there is nothing to indicate that the trend won't continue, and the gap get wider. For many years we failed to make the most of our girls, and squandered the talents of several generations of brilliant women. It's hardly sensible to repeat that failure with our boys.

The education minister, Baroness Blackstone, says what we all know to be true, which is that girls work harder than boys and are more conscientious. The head of head-teacher's union, David Hart, blames this on a "laddish culture, that despises academic achievement and [which] is tolerated by too many parents". Their sons come to school unwilling to learn, and convinced that they can succeed without application.

There are things that schools can do to help boys along. The literacy hour has, apparently, boosted the reading abilities of boys significantly. There's also evidence that segregating girls and boys for some lessons is of benefit to both (though what do you do about the child who does not want to be entirely defined by his or her gender?). In addition there are other strategies available to capture the imagination of boys.

But the real answer, as ever, lies in the soil. We have to change for boys what we changed for girls: the way they are treated within the family, and the way that the culture deals with them. All this daft preoccupation with sport and dangerous hobbies; this suggestion that what is most attractive about a man is a romantic carelessness; the perception that the hare really was far sexier than the tortoise; the notion that a footballer is the best role model. The continued portrayal of young men as useless, violent, sexually inadequate lame-brains. The tendency to downplay traditional male strengths, such as logic and attention to facts, in favour of intuition and "spirituality".

You don't have to be a subscriber to Dr Anthony Clare's "Dying Phallus" school (his phrase), to see the dangers in not addressing the problem. Because young men are stronger than women, and faster than older men.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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