The trouble with boys: They're falling rapidly behind girls at school. Are boys in terminal decline? Judith Judd tells the bad news

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Paul Cavanagh, 17, is honest about why he did less well than he expected in his GCSE exams. 'Complacency and arrogance,' he says. 'After our mock exams, the teachers predicted I would get six As. No trouble, I thought. I don't need to work. So I didn't and I got three As.'

He is now in the sixth form at King Alfred's School, Wantage, Oxfordshire, preparing for four A-levels. He says he is working harder to get to a decent university but still not as hard as the girls in his physics group. 'The group is mainly boys and they do almost no work at all, especially homework,' he says.

Paul, according to national studies, is a typical male student. Girls work harder and are less confident of their ability. Working hard is not 'cool' for either sex, but girls are less swayed by their peers' attitude to school work. Alison Francis, 15, another King Alfred's pupil, puts it this way: 'Girls do more work at home even if they want to keep up an image of doing no work at school.'

Girls' industry has been rewarded. In the days of the 11-plus 30 years ago, they did better than boys in primary schools. Recently they have beaten the boys at 16: more than four in 10 get top grades at GCSE compared with only a third of boys. Even in science and maths, traditionally male strongholds, girls have edged ahead. Last year, for the first time, they had more top grades in science.

A-level has remained the bastion of male achievement but the gap is narrowing. More boys still get the top two grades but girls are cutting their lead. Already a higher proportion of 18-year-old girls than boys gets three A-levels. Male undergraduates do both better and worse - more firsts and more thirds - than their female counterparts, but the difference varies from university to university.

The inexorable march of girls towards better examination performance is not explained just by hard work. It is the result, too, of the equal opportunities revolution of the past 20 years. Girls have been encouraged by a generation of determined female teachers to tackle maths and science, to stay on at school, to go to university and to have careers.

Recently, however, concern has shifted. Experts have begun to suggest that schools, in their eagerness to encourage girls, have neglected boys. They say that, in precisely the same way as teachers in the past failed to interest girls in maths, they are now failing to make boys enthusiastic about English. Recently, Demos, the independent think-tank, suggested that the revolution in girls' education had a price: demoralisation of boys. As girls have become more optimistic, the report said, boys have become so pessimistic that their depression is affecting their academic performance.

If this is so, the pessimism has not yet reached King Alfred's boys. They are neither worried about job prospects nor dismal about the future.

Complacency remains. Figures from the Equal Opportunities Commission show that there will be a fall in male employment of 300,000 by the year 2000 and 500,000 new jobs for women, but Paul says: 'It's definitely easier for men to get jobs. There are still employers who don't want women because they may go off and have children or because they think they lack a hard-nosed attitude.' Jonathan Spinage, another 17-year-old, agrees: 'Men think, 'I'm bound to get a job. I'm a bloke'.'

Far from being cowed, Paul and his contemporaries are ambitious. They want to be rich - but they are not sure that better qualifications mean a better job. Matthew Ryland, 17, explains: 'Boys are more ambitious. The basic boy dream is to be rich, to have a big car and a nice house. It was always said that to get high up you need lots of qualifications. Now there are other ways of doing it.'

Kevin Gibbons, who takes GCSE exams this year, says he is not at all motivated, spends his evenings watching television and doesn't do his homework until the last minute, if at all. 'I want to be rich but I'm not sure whether I'd like to go to university,' he says. 'You hear about all these people with postgraduate qualifications who can't get jobs.'

Girls, says Kate Douglas, 17, take a different view: 'With girls it's about succeeding in whatever they're doing. We're not just interested in the money.'

Even when girls and boys dislike subjects, girls still do well. Both boys and girls challenge the view that boys perform less well than girls in English because teachers do not stimulate boys' interest. Girls, too, have difficulty seeing the point of English, one of the subjects in which boys trail farthest behind girls. A boy says he had to read a book in the holidays and found it 'a terrible chore', and a girl asks: 'What's Romeo and Juliet got to do with the future?' Paul says: 'English is good for your spiritual well-being and cultural awareness, but boys can't see the point of it.'

Are the boys of King Alfred's, a successful comprehensive with exam results well above the national average, unusually cheerful about their future?

Research last year among 30,000 teenagers by John Balding, of Exeter University, suggests not. It shows boys have not sunk into gloom at the sight of girls' educational advance. Although fewer of them expect to continue in education, they are more confident than girls that they will have a worthwhile career and find a job. They also expect to meet less sex discrimination than girls when they are job-hunting.

Gordon Stobart, author of a study of boys' and girls' performance in maths and English for the Government's advisers on exams, scorns the notion that boys are in decline. His research found boys were more confident than girls about their lives, ability and work. 'Boys are not disillusioned,' he says.

'They are just incredibly complacent. They coast rather than struggle. Boys' English results at 16 have been stuck at the same level for years. That doesn't mean boys are necessarily distressed. They don't think English is important.'

He does not deny, however, the need to tackle boys' under-achievement: 'One of the key problems of English education for many years has been the under-achievement of white English, Welsh, Scots and Irish boys.'

Michael Barber, professor of education at Keele University, goes further.

'Ten or 15 years of equal opportunities have worked,' he says. 'That should be celebrated. But it is possible that we have taken away something from one group and given it to another. It is time to reconsider our equal opportunities strategy.' In particular, he believes we need to tackle boys' literacy, which is already behind that of girls by the age of seven.

Yet any plan to redress the balance in favour of boys must be treated with caution. There is no evidence that girls' success has been at the expense of boys, nor that teachers are discriminating against boys. According to research by Peter Mortimore, director of London University's Institute of Education, the latter still dominate the classroom and grab most of the teachers' attention.

King Alfred's pupils think teachers are fair and try to bring girls into discussion but Kevin says: 'If there's a discussion the boys shout out and try to get a laugh.' Kate says: 'If you make a mistake, the boys go on and on about it.'

When men continue to hold most of the senior positions in all walks of life, says Dr Stobart, we should beware of feeling too sorry for them. 'We males are cushioned throughout the system,' he says. 'I have no time for the idea that assertive women are robbing us and making us impotent.'

So the message for boys is straightforward: they must just try harder.

(Photograph omitted)