Girls may be forging ahead in the classroom - but they are falling behind in the street-wise technologies of the next century
Boys are falling behind girls at school, most dramatically in English. Even at age seven the gap is measurable, and by GCSE time it is wide. But we are measuring the wrong things. Boys, in their mastery of computers and computer games, have their hands on 21st-century technologies while the girls are steaming ahead with 19th-century ones. Girls are in danger of being left behind again.

The criteria used to measure success at school reflect highly traditional notions of literacy. A recent report by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, "Can do Better", has a phrase that helps put this succinctly: "... boys ... may find it harder to acquire the more sedentary skills of reading and writing."

That transports me back into the 19th century, into the high era of the novel, of literary and literacy habits largely defined by certain forms of femininity and by the customs and needs of that entirely different age. It identifies one part of the deep contradiction at the heart of the current educational agenda: a political urge to propel schools and society into the new information age, and the means proposed for achieving that.

It is as though Orville and Wilbur Wright, having glimpsed the possibility of powered flight, were now busy designing the best steam engine to do the job. The intent and the means envisaged just do not match up.

The world is changing. The links between schooling and the needs of economies of industrial mass production have become stretched to breaking-point.

The fit between what the school offers and what the world around the school does and needs has become dangerously attenuated.

That fit had promised boys a place of work; if some are now alienated from schooling it can be seen as a rational response to the increasing hollowness of much of that promise.

No such promises had been made to girls; to that extent the playing-field has been levelled, and girls are seizing their chance.

The solution proposed is to go back to what we know served us well in the past: stricter discipline, clearer forms of authority, rules for speaking and writing and an unnegotiable expectation of adherence to them. But these belong to another era, to that of the Fordist production line or the Taylorist bureaucracy; they will not do at all for the age of innovation.

Say we took a hard-nosed look at the real needs of economies built on information and on services. Say we looked at the vast social changes brought about in the shift from industrial mass production to consumerism as a means of defining lifestyle. Say we looked at the chasm that has opened up between the different worlds inhabited by young people - between, on one side, the still traditional school and, on the other, the educational institutions of the street, the media, the new information and communication technologies - of Playstations, computer games, the Internet and so on. And say we then asked a really dangerous question: where is the bigger gap? Does it lie between the world of the school and the world of the future economy, or between the out-of-school world of young people and the forms of work that they will encounter in their future lives?

What preparation does the highly traditional literacy agenda that dominates the public debate provide for the demands of that new world?

There is now a close link between many aspects of the world of leisure and the new world of work. There are things that images can do which writing cannot, and these things will be central in an economy built on the management of vast amounts of information.

The new interactivity of electronic technologies corresponds to newer work practices and relies on the media employed in these.

The new economy demands new kinds of thinking, dispositions to flexibility and innovativeness, new kinds of hand/eye/brain co-ordination in the visual analysis of quite extraordinary complexity; kinds of intelligence quite unlike those of the "sedentary skills of reading and writing". The new world of communication is vastly more diverse and demanding than that implied in the currently advocated, traditional literacy agendas. And it is, in some important ways, more aligned with what boys do after they hit the start button of their Playstation or computer. To get a literacy curriculum that is fair to both boys and girls we must move the focus away from language alone; we must cover the media of communication that are essential in that new world, and their new and complex interrelations. This would force us into a new assessment of the relative achievements of the sexes.

If we ignore this challenge, I fear that we may be about to repeat an older story in which girls moved into the so-called helping professions to become secretaries and nurses, and boys, having done their maths and sciences, moved into male-dominated professions. This could lead to a newly "gendered" division of opportunity, perhaps corresponding to the division between "services" and "information" in the economy. Girls' achievement would be rewarded by the education system, but not by the world of work.

The writer is professor of education in relation to English at the Institute of Education in London. His most recent book is 'Before Writing: Rethinking Paths to Literacy' (Routledge 1997). e-mail: http://www.ioe.

A conference, 'Education in Late Modernity: Beyond Narrowing Agendas' is held today and tomorrow, hosted by the Institute of Education. conference98