Football mania has a lot to answer for

the trouble with boys

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Some New York wag once calculated that after you'd discounted the men who were too old, too young, gay, married, unemployed, in prison, about to go into prison, junkies, or downright social misfits, the choice available to a young woman was pretty thin: just one eligible bachelor for every nine women. When the statistic was trotted out, all attached males would chorus "So where's my other eight, then?"

As ever, there's a grain of truth in the satire; and whilst the British can never lay claim to the extremes generated by American society, the statistics released by Scotland Yard yesterday will cause a shudder among the parents of teenage girls throughout the land. The young women themselves may simply shrug their shoulders; they've suspected for most of their lives that their male peers are worse than useless.

The picture painted by the Scotland Yard study is of loutish, delinquent males, many barely able to write their names. Children, mostly boys under 16, commit two out of every five street robberies, one in three car thefts and a similar proportion of house burglaries. Having recently been the victim of auto crime, I can even envisage the sort of little creep we are talking about - but let's not dwell on my prejudices. Instead, we should note that many of these crimes are committed during school hours; not surprisingly, the educational achievement of those who are caught and can therefore be studied, is somewhat lower than that of the average Teletubby. Interviews of 500 young offenders by the Basic Skills Agency showed that one in five couldn't write their names and addresses properly, half had problems with the time and date, and three out of 10 couldn't fill in a job application form - and none of these was under the influence of illegal substances at the time.

These are people for whom applying to a welfare-to-work scheme, the Big Idea for their salvation, represents an intellectual challenge the size of Mount Everest. The minister responsible for standards in schools has declared himself "staggered" - a state all too familiar to teenage boys following an active Friday night. We will hear his proposals for remedying the situation on Monday; no doubt there will be a task force or two, some new schemes to spread the successful practice by some outstanding headteachers (in line for honours next time round, probably), and the obligatory exhortation to teachers to demand more from their male students. But sooner or later someone will have to explain what is going on.

Assuming that there isn't anything being put into the water to depress male IQ, to what can we attribute these findings? One unusual, but, I think, rather credible cause has recently been brought to my attention: football. A distinguished educationist (who modestly does not wish to be named) has recently drawn my attention to work suggesting that boys are becoming so utterly obsessed by the beautiful game that there is little space left in their little brains for anything else.

On the face of it, this seems slightly absurd; Sir Tom Finney was as ardently hero-worshipped as is Alan Shearer, George Eastham as eagerly followed as is Ian Wright. Small boys imitated George Best's footwork as assiduously as Ryan Giggs's. But a generation ago, football was just one of a number of recreations, alongside cricket, athletics, stamp-collecting, war games and the Boy Scouts; today it is a total way of life. Television, the stock market and oodles of money have turned a game into a self-contained universe. Boys talk about it, watch it, and gain their status from performing on the field, talking about it off the field, knowing its history and statistics inside out. Games teachers complain that potential geniuses in other sports settle for mediocrity in soccer; classroom teachers sigh that half their classes are only whiling away the hours inside before rushing out to the playground to practise their latest free kick set pieces.

I would yield to no one in my enthusiasm for football; anyone who has given nearly four decades to the cause of Chelsea Football Club needs no further proof of devotion to the sport. However, a diet of football alone must deprive boys of the range of skills that girls are picking up daily - articulacy, manual dexterity, social interactions and all the things which make it possible to read and analyse anything more than the league tables. The result is girls forging ahead, and boys with a lack of enthusiasm for anything that involves reading books without pictures, a narrowness of outlook, and an incapacity to communicate in anything other than Graham-Taylor-speak.

It used to be said that boys, developing later, would catch up in the final years of school, particularly over A-levels. But this year's results showed that, if anything, the opposite is true. For the first time girls performed pretty much as well as boys in science and maths; my own guess is that examiners' and teachers' low expectations of girls have always depressed their results. New methods of assessment, which make the outcome less reliant on the all-or-nothing final papers, have lessened the impact of this bias, and we are now seeing a truer reflection of girls' abilities.

However, all is not lost for the male of the species. A number of football clubs are beginning to recognise that their responsibility lies beyond the terraces; Peterborough United, for example, is reinventing itself as a patron of the arts. Arsenal and others are pioneering the equivalent of America's football scholarships, encouraging boys who would like to be professionals to compete for places with the club, not just with their feet but with their brains. There is even some talk of roping football clubs into homework schemes for schoolchildren. If football is indeed part of the problem, it could also turn out to be part of the solution. And when, later this year, the big clubs get permission to start their own TV channels, maybe there should be a requirement on them to make an effort to persuade their young viewers to learn to read and write. After all, the head and the feet can work at the same time; the former captain of Brazil, the world's greatest footballing nation, was a certain Brasileiro Sampaio Vieira de Oliveira, DPhil; not for nothing was his playing name Socrates.

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