Education: Regardless of sex, it's cool to do well

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The Independent Online
Girls are winning the academic achievement race. Test and exam results show that they are winning at seven, they are winning at 11 and they are winning triumphantly at 16. At 18 they are catching up fast and, given time, no doubt, they will storm the last unconquered citadel where boys still do better than girls - the first-class honours degree.

Last week's 14-year-old assessment results were yet another footnote to the story of girls' onward march. The first results of national curriculum assessments carried out by teachers for subjects other than English, maths and science painted a familiar picture. Two thirds of the girls but only half of the boys reached the expected standard in history, geography, design and technology, modern foreign languages and music.

At GCSE and A-level, girls are now matching boys in the traditionally male strongholds of maths and physics.

The differences are so stark that if ministers could solve the problem of boys' under-achievement, they would be well on the way to reaching the demanding national targets they have set for the year 2002.

So what's to be done? Schools - and ministers - have to be realistic. There's nothing they can do about a crisis in male confidence that stems partly from the disappearance of many jobs which depend on muscle-power and their replacement by jobs that girls can do just as well - or better - than boys.

Some of the qualities that make girls so employable are the result of centuries of conditioning. The art of simultaneously feeding a baby, cooking the supper and doing a jigsaw with a toddler is not going to transfer to men overnight.

There is also a limit to the extent to which schools can combat the "feminine culture" that makes boys anti-reading. Research from Exeter University and part of the Leverhulme Primary Project found that boys (the minority) whose fathers or grandfathers read at home with them did better than those who read with mother.

But schools can make a difference. Research has shown that boys will read adventure, humour and sport. They won't, for the most part, read stories, though replacing Jane Eyre with Roald Dahl may help.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is preparing a pack of information for teachers to be sent out in the New Year to make English more boy-friendly.

It will point out the need to make allowance for boys' preference for fact over fiction in choosing books, comprehension exercises and essay titles for them. There are case studies including one in which boys compared accounts of football matches in different papers and another in which a teacher logged the books that boys borrowed from the school library. Another school paired 11-year-old boys and girls so that girls could teach boys planning and boys could teach girls a more adventurous use of language.

Yet there are dangers in all this. If schools focus simply on boys' under- achievement and the differences between boys and girls, both girls and society will be the losers. Do we really want a culture in which boys are encouraged to analyse a football match but not the relationship between Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester?

Despite their overall success, there are still plenty of under-achieving girls who drift into motherhood without the qualifications they need for employment.

Some schools have chosen to tackle the gender divide by close and regular monitoring of the performance of all pupils, irrespective of their sex. They have set short-term goals and given their slowest pupils extra help. They have also tackled discipline throughout the school - one of the keys, according to inspectors, to improving boys' achievement. Finally, they have tried to change pupils' motivation and to promote the idea that it is "cool" to achieve. That is surely the way forward.

A reminder that boys have fallen far behind girls was long overdue. But the solution lies in better teaching for both.