Mailwatch: why would I need facts when I have unsupported assertions and my son’s swimming team?

01Feb07

I don’t know why I ever look at the Daily Mail’s web site (I tell myself it’s so I know what the enemy’s thinking, but I think it’s actually more like a sore spot that you just can’t stop poking even though you know it’ll hurt). Yet somehow I can’t help myself. In a change from what Catherine Bennett once brilliantly called “its ‘Is being a woman fatal?’ speciality”, the Mail changes focus slightly to how boys are oppressed by the school curriculum. Jill Parkin writes in today’s Mail about how “feminised” schools are failing boys and, like a moth drawn to the flame, I find myself compelled to read it.

Taking as her starting point the (*cough*) universal experience of her son’s team losing a swimming competition, Parkin goes on to suggest that schools are rigged to benefit girls and quash boys’ natural instincts. Any article that begins with an anecdote about the writer’s child is obviously going to be scientifically rigorous and well argued, so I had high hopes for this one.


Arguing that the “feminised curriculum” benefits girls over boys, Parkin gets straight to the point: boys have been told that education is not for them and sneaky, people-pleasing girls have snuck in and taken more than their share of university places (the one lonely statistic in this article refers to how many girls have won places at university than boys). Naturally all boys have short attention spans and can’t cope with coursework:

But where’s the excitement and challenge for boys? Exams used to be a chance for them to show off and think on their feet. Not any more. No wonder all too many of them fall by the wayside, and are opting out of the chance to go to university.

She even hints that girls are more likely to be plagiarists (either that, or it’s an appallingly badly written paragraph):

This system of continuous assessment means that anyone who can call up Google on a computer can cut and paste answers from the internet at home. Girls, with their more patient approach to learning, thrive under such a system.

Parkin’s article is muddled, one part “political correctness gone mad” in its condemnation of a kind of egalitarianism I’ve never seen in any school (all must have prizes!) and one part shoring up old myths of masculinity as aggressive, competitive, violent – and brilliant. Girls are plodders, apparently, never taking risks and keeping to the middle ground, while boys need “glorious triumph or disaster” to be engaged. Naturally none of this is supported by any evidence whatsoever.

I work in education. I know that engaging boys is a major focus at the moment and that it’s not easy. But like anyone who works in this area, I know that simplistic solutions with a one-size-fits-all approach based on unscientific assertions and sweeping generalisations with a smattering of biological determinism thrown in for good measure are no answer at all. Newsflash, Ms Parkin – not all boys are the same. Not all girls are either. Trying to squash them all together into rigid gender stereotypes benefits no one. Next time you’re miffed about your son’s swimming team losing, I suggest you take it up with the headmaster. Not waste our time with poorly-supported opinion pieces like this.

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