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Allowing 'boys to be boys' won't bridge the GCSE gender gap

Celebrating an archaic idea of masculinity won't help solve the problem of boys underperforming at school.

British schools need to spend more time celebrating the traditional masculine roles that men were “born to do,” Tory MP Karl McCartney suggested in a recent speech in parliament.  As a mother of school-age boys, I’m troubled by this. Does my sons’ school offer lessons in manliness? If not, how can I be sure they won’t mistakenly end up doing things women are “born to do,” such as hoovering, ironing and remembering to send birthday cards?

Not only that, but how can I be sure that girls – any girls, I don’t care which – won’t get better exam results than my brilliant boys? This stuff keeps me awake at night (this, and fuming over white male MPs standing up in parliament to complain about the “shrill equal pay brigade,” but best not to dwell on that now).

There’s a long history of boys underperforming, by which we mean “not doing as well as girls.” The assumption is that boys should naturally be doing as well as their female contemporaries. This is not an idea of equality we apply in all fields. We do not, for instance, talk about women “underperforming” at sports. We do not insist that men have no innate physical advantage (something that would be quite obvious were the Olympic 100m sprint to be replaced with competitive menstrual bleeding or breastmilk squirting). Yet we refuse to accept that girls could just be better at certain academic subjects. Of course not. There must be something wrong with the way these subjects are being taught.

There have been many explanations offered for girls’ unfair educational advantages. Coursework has been pandering to plodding, diligent girls, denying boys the chance to show off their sheer brilliance in a high-pressure exam environment. The alleged dumbing down of GCSEs has been making our boys, these natural geniuses, too bored to concentrate, whereas our dull, compliant girls have thrived when it comes to ticking boxes, memorising facts and answering facile multiple-choice questions. It has been argued that girls “mature more quickly” than boys, meaning that early streaming has benefited girls who would otherwise have been overtaken by boys a few years down the line (it is important to note here that “maturing” means different things for boys and girls. When girls “mature” early, they do not become a mass of raging hormones, but sensible, boring mini-adults. When boys “mature,” the poor things are subject to all sorts of aggressive urges and carnal desires for which teachers, who are predominantly female and hence not human beings boys can respect, are failing to make allowances). Even sitting down in a classroom environment has been claimed to disadvantage boys, who apparently need to be allowed to walk around. Then, on top of all that, there’s just feminism. Yes, bloody feminism. The political movement for the liberation of half the human race really messes with a lad’s GCSE English prospects.

Poor, poor boys. Honestly, when you look at the overall picture – girls told not to study in case it caused their wombs to wither, universities which first refused to admit women and then, once they’d accepted them, refused to award them actual degrees, 11-plus pass marks which were set lower for boys to ensure girls did not outnumber them, clothing companies still portraying little boys as “scholars” and little girls as “social butterflies” – it’s pretty clear that no one’s ever had to struggle the way boys are struggling today. Girls may have had to fight – and in many parts of the world are still fighting – to get an education at all, but it’s easier for them because they’re girls. Girls can adapt to systems that were set up for others. You can’t ask the same of boys.

We mustn’t, argues McCartney, “try and make boys into something they are not.” Boys will be boys: “They need to know it is okay to be masculine, and that masculinity is the equal of femininity. It is a positive thing to like cars, engines, building sites, getting your hands dirty and playing sport.”

See? If only we had an education system that was more appreciative of slugs, snails and puppy dogs’ tails, everything would be fine.

Which brings us, as most sexist arguments do, back to the idea of the male default. According to McCartney “we must not shy away, at any level, from celebrating what traditional male or masculine roles are; they are what we as males were born to do.” If a system does not work for women, women must change. If a system does not work for men, the system must change. If the system works for neither, the system must change to benefit men and women must adapt. The trouble is, as soon as women do adapt, men once again claim the system favours women and needs to change again. Indeed, women’s ability to adapt to changes which seek to “even up the balance” will be presented as a further unfair advantage.

In The End of Men (predicted in 2012, sadly still not forthcoming) the author Hanna Rosin uses the image of Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man:

“Plastic Woman has during the last century performed superhuman feats of flexibility. […] If a space opens up for her to make more money than her husband, she grabs it. […] Cardboard Man, meanwhile, hardly changes at all. A century can go by and his lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same.”

It does not seem to cross Rosin’s mind that this refusal to change is a symptom, not an underminer, of male privilege. Performing “superhuman feats of flexibility” is not evidence of some innate advantage; on the contrary, it’s a response to disadvantage. Men will not budge up and make room for women, so we have to change shape to fit in whatever spaces we can.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that being born without a vagina should necessarily make you any worse at school. Even though girls in UK schools were outperforming boys before the introduction of GCSEs – and even though a recent study indicated that girls do better than boys at school even in countries with relatively low gender equality – I think we should give boys the benefit of the doubt. It might not be that having a penis rather than a uterus makes you rubbish at learning. Personally, I think the problem is not how we’re teaching maths or English to boys, nor even their ridiculous appendages, but how we’re teaching them to be male.

Female socialisation gets a bad rap – and sure, being taught to be submissive and obedient isn’t ideal if the other half of the population is taught to be dominant and aggressive – but there are some benefits. Indeed, let’s look at the end product here: human beings who are not only considerably less violent, more empathetic and more likely to take care of others, but who even live longer and do better at school. If it wasn’t for the low status, exploitation and constant threat of sexual violence (that is, if it wasn’t for the patriarchy), womanhood might just be the best thing ever.

When McCartney says “masculinity is the equal of femininity,” I say “no, it isn’t.” Masculinity is the behaviour of the male ruling class and it is measurably worse – for everyone — than the behaviour of the female subjugated class. Boys do not need to be taught to “celebrate” masculinity. They need to be taught to be more like the girls who are outperforming them. They need to be taught that it is okay to be flexible, open to change, to adapt, to listen, to care, to actually sit on their arses and pay attention when a teacher – male or female – is talking to them rather than be told they have a God-given right to roam the classroom because they have a penis. They need to be “made into something they are not” – someone who knows more, gives more, is more – because that should be what an education is about. It is not an award given in honour of one’s innate superior qualities. How can a child learn if he is told from the day he is born he is already fully formed, his destiny already mapped out? How can a child be open to change when he is told he is made of cardboard?

To that extent, girls are in a privileged position. Forced to be open and receptive – treated as hollow vessels, or mirrors to reflect the male ego – they do at least learn to receive and absorb. They allow ideas inside them, ideas that change who they are, and that is what allows them to progress as human beings. Imagine if boys could be taught to do the same. Imagine if the same patience, kindness and empathy was expected of them. Even if this did little to change the GCSE gender gap, just think of how it would change the world.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.