Leading article: Closing the education gap

Tuesday 29 December 2009 01:00
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Educationalists have long worried about the achievement and development gap that matches the gender gap among children. Such concerns lie behind the Government's decision to urge nurseries and childminders to get small boys writing more, and writing earlier.

It is deeply depressing that, according to official data, more than one in six boys cannot write their own name, or spell words like "dad" or "cat", after a year in school – and that this is double the proportion of girls similarly held back.

Delays in learning to write among boys have longer term negative consequences for society because the connection is well established between an ability to marshall one's thoughts on paper and broader emotional development.

The question is, what to do about boys? The advice from the children's minister, Dawn Primarolo, is to encourage boys to start writing through roleplay and by offering them new materials with which to write. Don't rely on the old-fashioned pencil; try sand, or even chocolate.

Undoubtedly, the emphasis that is being laid on tempting boys into writing via misplaced "fun" activities is intended to moderate the fury of the many educationalists who passionately oppose literacy targets for boys.

But perhaps the Government is not going far enough, and should consider at least a partial return to the neglected tradition of teaching children to learn by rote. Groundbreaking research in the US has already shown how family income affects children's cognitive development, setting up an income-achievement gap that is present by the kindergarten stage and only widens with time.

The cause is the higher stress levels to which poor children are exposed, which slow the generation of new brain cells and shrink the volume of those parts of the brain most linked to working memory. In the long term, only reducing the vast inequalities in society will remedy this. In the meantime, separate research has shown that rote learning improves the memory skills of the very young and elderly alike. Learning through repetition may be out of fashion right now. But if it can help close the attainment gap between boys and girls, it should be warmly welcomed.

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