"Boys!" said one mother the other day as we watched several toddler- sized males behaving badly. "They are impossible!" Another mother nodded and raised her voice over the din: "They are so different from girls. I never believed it until I had mine." One lad then started to decapitate a lamp. "Oh, he's got so much energy," said his mum as furniture started to fly.
I report this conversation not because it is rare but because it is so common. Every parent has had it at least a thousand times and so I hardly think it is a secret that boys behave badly and have since forever. Every mum and dad knows this. Every sister with a brother knows this. Every tomboy who tried to get away with it herself knows it. Every teacher knows it. Even that guy called Anon who came up with the puppydog tail line knew it. And now, it seems, the Government does too.
Yesterday the papers were full of the "news" that girls are better than boys at school and the "laddish anti-learning culture" is to blame. Official figures released today show girls outperforming boys at GCSE level in all but one local authority. The Government has declared this to be a crisis and is acting accordingly. Schools minister Stephen Byers - a member of the Prime Minister's Social Exclusion Unit - is to announce a national strategy to deal with the gender gap. "From his point of view the most worrying thing is this men behaving badly type of culture where learning is out and mucking about it is in," said a spokesman for the education department yesterday. The Government is to make disaffected boys a central issue of its European presidency.
The first reaction to this has to be whether things haven't got a little bit out of perspective here. After all, the statistical under-achievement of boys in schools is nothing compared with the statistical over-achievement of men in life. To look at the figures, it would seem that the boy who cannot read as well as the girl next door at age seven will make up for that rather nicely over the coming decade or two. By the time they get to university, for instance, they will start to draw even and eventually pull ahead. At work they will make about 20 per cent more money than she does and have an astronomically better chance of getting a bit of real power in terms of a seat on the board. His personal life also has more choice and less drudgery. The average man spends three minutes a day doing laundry, according to the National Statistics Office. Now that's a figure that tells a story.
It's not only New Lad who is mucking about. Witness Westminster, the ultimate place for men behaving badly. This has not gone unnoticed by the 120 women MPs, many of whom are newcomers to this particular playground and do not like what they have found. In Westminster Women, a new ITV series which began yesterday, the Labour MP for Reading East, Jane Griffiths, talked about two Conservative MPs who put their hands out in front of their breasts "as if weighing melons" when female members speak. A survey for the series by the gender equality group Fawcett showed that 63 per cent of female MPs think it is harder to be a woman than a man in Parliament. The reasons? "Yob culture", "male public school attitudes" , "silly rules and secret conventions ... managed by men, for men".
Labour men behave badly too, of course, and it is rather interesting that the Government is so concerned about boys in general behaving badly when there are probably some rather needy disciplinary cases closer to hand. But there are deeper currents at work here in both Parliament and the primary school and both have far-reaching implications. After all, the figures do not tell the whole story because today's boy of 10 and his father come from generations that are getting more different by the day. The world of work, particularly for the working class, is changing rapidly. Manufacturing jobs are in decline. Information technology and leisure are the new growth areas. There are fewer "jobs for life" and more part-time and short-term contract work. Women are in the workplace to stay. Eventually - they say - the glass ceiling will only be a memory. These changes, some call it a revolution, have important consequences and it will mean that the lad of 10 may not be able to get away with behaving badly when he is his father's age.
Mr Byers today will call on local education authorities to draw up plans to tackle the problem. One of the areas is likely to be whether boys have enough role models in primary school. The reasons for this are simple: low pay. There is talk of a drive to increase the pay of primary teachers to attract more men into the junior schools (women can only welcome such an idea though it's a pretty back-handed compliment). Then there is also the area of voluntary classroom assistants. At the moment it is much more likely to be a mum who offers her time to help . "It has been shown than boys see reading as something that is feminine," said an education department spokesman yesterday. "It may be that schools will try to get more fathers in to read."
The idea of getting more fathers in to show little Johnny that reading can be masculine is almost as wonderful as the idea of getting more women in Parliament to show that governing can be feminine. Perhaps Girl Power - that feel-good factor for every female under eight - may not so much trickle down as percolate up.
Certainly the new female MPs have the confidence to challenge the status quo. "These women want to change the definition of what an MP actually is," says Mary-Ann Stephenson of Fawcett. "They don't want Parliament to stay the way it is. They want it to change."
Can it happen? Will there be huge increases in the number of female MPs and male primary school teachers? Whatever lies ahead, the two are linked: the culture of the playground and of Parliament have too much in common for it to be otherwise.
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