Out in the cold - boys at school, men at home

Jack O'Sullivan on the real differences
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It has been a good week for boys. At last the Government is tackling their educational under-achievement. At last ministers accept that boys may have different needs to girls, needs that their schooling should acknowledge. So, all week we have been discussing whether more male primary teachers are required, whether the curriculum is too "female" for boys, providing insufficient emphasis on their interests. Meanwhile, some educationalists have argued that boys' brains develop at a different rate to girls', making it a mistake for some to tackle reading and writing as early as girls.

The validity and importance of such comments, in explaining boys' underperformance, is questionable. Research evidence is incomplete and often anecdotal. So, given the emotionally charged nature of the subject, there is a danger of over-hasty, wrong-headed recommendations that will do little to help boys.

Nevertheless, this week's policy shift is monumental. For it has, at a stroke, freed us from an intellectual straitjacket. Suddenly, it is OK to admit that, in education and public policy terms, boys are not neutered. It is no longer a heresy to say they may be fundamentally different from girls, requiring different treatment.

This difference may seem perfectly obvious to most people. But sexual politics likes to avoid it, concentrating instead on equality of treatment. The fear has been that too much talk about difference between the sexes will be used to excuse discrimination against women.

The Nineties are, thankfully, seeing the boundaries of the gender debate loosened, not only for the benefit of boys. In the US, a string of recent books have examined deep-rooted differences between the way men and women think. John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus exemplifies an approach designed to improve relationships between the sexes by acknowledging what they don't have in common.

Likewise, the American psychologist, John Gottman, has identified biological reasons why men and women act in such contrary ways. In his recent book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, he argues that men, for example, stonewall in argument to protect themselves from heart disease: because, once emotionally excited, it is hard for them to calm down. This weakness is a hangover from their neanderthal days as protectors, when it was important for them to remain on high alert for long periods. In contrast, women will argue relentlessly with men - not knowing when to stop - when something has gone wrong in their relationship. The evolutionary reason? Because well- developed, thoroughly explored relationships were vital for vulnerable mothers nursing babies.

So why are we allowing ourselves at this particular time to think about differences between the sexes? Perhaps this reflects the fact that the argument for treating men and women equally has triumphed intellectually, if not yet on the ground. So we can afford to acknowledge different needs. It is also hardly surprising that the shift should have come with respect to boys - concern about them is something upon which both women and men, being mothers and fathers, can easily share. Whatever the reason, the liberalisation of debate should benefit both men and women by facilitating their mutual understanding and allowing their different needs to be addressed.

There are two further reasons why this week's initiative represents a liberation for the gender debate. The first concerns recognition among experts that boys are doing no worse than in the past - their longstanding failure is merely being highlighted by female advancement. (Decades ago the 11-plus figures had to be fiddled because girls were doing so well and would have outnumbered boys in grammar schools.) This is a fascinating admission. Once you realise that the education system served boys badly even in the days of "male domination" you can question whether all sorts of institutions, designed when men controlled everything, actually did men much good.

Second, the implication of the Government's announcement was that "feminisation" of the educational culture may have ill-served boys. And the package of measures, such as introducing more male teachers, amounts to the admission that primary education, at the very least, needs some "masculinisation".

We have come to assume that "feminisation" is always a good thing. And certainly both men and women will speak of its virtues in the workplace - better communication and more flexible hours. Meanwhile, that ugly term "masculinisation" is usually regarded as negative, synonymous with male authoritarianism.

However, the inadequacies of boys' education suggests publicly, perhaps for the first time, that some forms of feminisation can alienate and damage some males. They may need schools to be designed more in their image.

If this is true in schools, then where else might the argument for less feminisation, more masculinisation, apply? If you were to look for one institution, other than school, to which we would like males to feel a greater attachment, it is the home.

Home is a place where many men clearly do not feel much at home. They often seem to be more at ease in the pub, the garden shed or the allotment. Typically, they do not entertain their friends at home in the way that women do so easily. Walk into most houses and it is easy to see why - the decorating is almost always conceived by women and the vital rooms, kitchen, bathroom and living room, are normally female domains. Yet we live in an age when the needs of good parenting and sustained marital relationships demand that men should feel comfortable with being at home and not take flight as so many do.

The implications of making traditionally "female" institutions more inviting to males, will understandably worry many women. Likewise, they may be concerned about what the new focus on boys at school will mean for their daughters. But such issues, freed up by this week's announcement, will have to be tackled if we are to move to a world in which the war between the sexes is, finally, to come to an end. Negotiating an acceptable new dispensation will require all the mutual understanding that the likes of John Gray and John Gottman are busy imparting to men and women.