Leading academics and policymakers have pondered long and hard about the problem of how to overcome the poor performance of boys at school.
Now it seems, according to new research published today, the answer may be quite simple – just get them to play more games and the exam passes could take care of themselves.
A study of 508 independent schools by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) reveals for the first time that there is a strong link between the amount of voluntary activities such as chess and cricket undertaken by children and their exam performance. Pupils in the top-performing schools for GCSE results took part, on average, in 50 per cent more activities than those schools at the bottom of the performance ladder. In addition, the research found, the difference in performance was more marked in boys-only schools.
The research is particularly borne out at Harrow, one of the top boys' private schools in the country.
Its cricket master regularly checks the exam performance of the school's First XI after complaints from other masters that their commitment to the team takes them away from their studies in the summer term.
"Matches can begin at 10am and take them away for the day," said Barnaby Lennon, headmaster of Harrow, "But their A-level results appear better."
"Basically, I think a lot of boys aren't particularly motivated by academic work, but are motivated by sport. Having achieved success in one area of school, they do better in others, too."
The range of activities in the top performing schools (based on the percentage of candidates getting "B" grade passes in their GCSEs) was vast – with children, on average, taking part in about 30 voluntary activities during the course of a year.
These varied from activities such as bell ringing, photography and chess to more traditional sports such as cricket and athletics.
The research suggested that taking part in voluntary activities helped children build higher self-esteem, reduce levels of depression, get greater public recognition throughout the school, make more friends, and reduce drop-out rates.
Tim Hands, head of Magdalen College, Oxford, said the research showed the short-sightedness of successive governments in downplaying the role of art and music in state schools. "The ability to do music, to do sport, to do drama isn't anything like it was," he said. "No one in government has paid enough attention to this side of things."
Larner Bernard, head of research at the ISC, added: "If a child knows they're good at something it helps them to feel better about their academic studies.
"A lot of the sporting activities they take part in have a bigger impact on boys in terms of their motivation."
For years, the performance of boys has lagged behind behind girls in national curriculum tests, GCSEs and A-levels. The gap is most marked in reading and writing.
Various solutions to the problem have been put forward in the past few years, including the use of more boy-friendly books in the classroom for primary school pupils – action-packed adventure stories rather than the literary classics favoured by the girls.
Today's research makes it seem policymakers might have been better off preventing the sale of school playing fields rather than looking for solutions more rooted in the delivery of the curriculum.
Improving your IQ: Enhancing pastimes
* Classical music helps improve maths and spatial reasoning. Psychologists found rats ran faster and more accurately in mazes after being played a piece of Mozart than after hearing white noise or music by a minimalist composer.
* Driving improves memory as well as slow down mental decline. MRI scans have shown taxi drivers learning their routes in London increased the size of the hippocampus, the part of their brain linked to memory and learning.
* Walking and running have positive effects. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which followed 20,000 women over 20 years, found those who walked at an easy pace for at least 90 minutes a week did better in general thinking, verbal memory, mental sorting and attention tests than those who walked less than 40 minutes.
* Table tennis is one of the most IQ-enhancing ball sports, improving hand-eye co-ordination, using both upper and lower body and ensuring players engage different areas of the brain. Juggling is also excellent as it uses both sides of the brain.Reuse content