Last year nearly 43 per cent of girls gained five or more A-C grades at GCSE compared to 34 per cent of boys. The widest gap was in English, with 56 per cent of girls gaining top grades against 40 per cent of boys. But girls are also closing the gap in what have traditionally been considered the male preserves of maths and science. What is more, they are now doing as well as, and in some cases better than, boys at A-level and more are going on to university.
Data gathered recently by the Centre for Successful Schools at Keele University revealed that many young people lacked motivation and felt under pressure from their peers to shy away from academic achievement. Michael Barber, professor of education at Keele University and the centre's director, said: 'The evidence of disaffection is much stronger among boys than girls. One of the major equal opportunities issues for the late Nineties is the motivation and achievement of boys in secondary education.'
The academic gap between the sexes appears at around the age of seven and has become marked by secondary school. Michael Russell, head of Malmesbury Junior School in east London, said: 'Girls tend to apply themselves better than boys, work more carefully and diligently, make more considered contributions, are distracted less easily and produce neater work.' While boys prefer to play football or a computer game in their free time, girls are more likely to read or talk to their friends or parents, so improving their literacy skills.
Parents and teachers are partly to blame. 'Boys tend to get more negative responses than girls. There is an assumption they are going to be naughty. We try very hard not to treat them differently, but we still find that the boys have lower reading skills at 11 than girls. I don't know what the answer is.'
Secondary school teachers are equally baffled. By then boys have become highly sensitive to the critical gaze of their peers. Many will regard poetry and self-expression as something for girls.
Sue Hargardon, deputy head of Hartismere High School in Suffolk, is researching the problem for her masters degree in education and recently asked pupils for their views. 'The boys felt that it was all right for the girls to work hard, but not for them if they wanted to appear cool and be a lad.' They also tended to find it harder to give up their outside activities at exam time. But they did not regard themselves as any less bright than the girls.
Mr Barber found that more boys than girls believed they were very able and that their work was praised. The old-style one-off exam suited boys who were confident enough to leave revision to the last moment and get by on bravado and luck. Course work and continual assessment require more long-term application, which is better suited to girls.
So what can schools do to improve the performance of boys? It has long been thought that girls benefited from single-sex education but that boys lost out without the 'civilising presence' of the girls. But co-educational schools hardly featured at the top of last year's league tables and now some schools are wondering if boys might also do better on their own.
Peter Osborne, headteacher at Shenfield School, Essex, recently announced that his new intake of pupils would be taught in single-sex lessons until the sixth form. 'Boys are worried by the new assertiveness of girls,' he said. 'If you put them by themselves, they have no one to show off to and the teaching will be aimed solely at them.'
Other schools are trying to tackle the problem without segregating pupils. One, the Vale of Ancholme School in Brigg, Humberside, involved five local primary schools in a project to improve boys' language skills.
Methods included structuring talk to ensure boys used reflective language; pairing pupils up to answer questions together rather than asking for hands-up, so that all were talking; seating pupils in mixed groups so the boys were exposed to the girls' language skills; and using computers and video cameras to gain the boys' interest.
Teachers were also encouraged to reassess the way they spoke to boys. Mary Meredith, an English teacher at the Vale and co-ordinator for equal opportunities, said: 'Teachers often use more lengthy explanations with the girls and write shorter, more directly critical comments on boys' work, which can alienate them. Boys also tend to use more vernacular, which we should accept for a while if it promotes expression.' The school was already seeing results. 'Boys are expressing themselves more, becoming more involved.'
This year's GCSE results will reveal whether the decrease in course work has improved boys' performance. Even if it has, the issue will remain - but is it one of equal opportunities? Not according to Brenda Hancock, director of policy for the Equal Opportunities Commission. 'Girls have been showing how well they can do with more equal opportunities. We have no evidence that boys are being blighted by unequal opportunities or sexual discrimination. It looks more like something to do with their social and cultural conditioning.'
With bleak employment prospects for unskilled males, schools and parents should take note.
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