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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 01:08 GMT
Will boys always be boys?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic

"Boys are not behind, they are ahead." That is the view of two American educational researchers.

Their argument appears to go against the evidence, particularly in the week when the latest official statistics showed that, in England, girls continue to out-perform boys in most subjects and at most ages.

However, their case is interesting and worth closer inspection. First, though, what do the statistics for the national tests at seven, 11, and 14 and GCSE show about the gender gap?

In the 2003 National Curriculum tests in English, mathematics and science, girls scored better than boys in virtually all subjects and at all ages.

The exception was in maths at age 11, when boys were marginally ahead.

Gender gap

It is in English that the girls are forging ahead fastest. At age seven, 88% of girls achieved the expected level for their age, compared to 80% of boys. There is a similar gap in writing.

By age 11, the girls' lead has grown to 11 percentage points (80% of girls and 69% of boys reaching the expected standard) and by age 14 the gap has widened to 14 percentage points.

The gender gap in maths and science is not nearly so marked. However, the importance of ability in English to all other subjects is underlined by the clear lead of girls in GCSE results.

The proportion of girls getting five or more passes at grade C or better in 2003 was 56.1%. The figure for boys was just 45.5%.

It is even more remarkable to note that this gender gap operates across all ethnic minority groups in England. The biggest gap is amongst pupils of black-Caribbean origin, where 40% of girls get five or more good GCSE passes but only 25% of boys do so.

'Knowledge' jobs

But girls are also ahead of boys in all other ethnic groups: Asian, black African, Chinese, mixed-race, and white.

A similar "gender gap" is evident in the US and some other countries. Why?

American educational researchers William Draves and Julie Coates claim to know the answer.

In their new book - Nine Shift: Work, life and education in the 21st century - they argue that boys are leading society into the internet age.

According to them, it is not boys who are the problem but schools. For while boys are developing the skills they will need in the "knowledge jobs" of the future, schools are still preparing students for an industrial age which is passing.

They believe schools in the US had to go through a similar adjustment between 1900 and 1920, as the education system adapted to produce the skills needed for industrial and office employers instead of the rural economy.

Draves and Coates say boys dropped out of school in huge numbers in the first two decades of the 20th century. Yet it was young men, experimenting with technology, who led America's manufacturing boom, especially in the automobile industry.

They say something similar is happening today: boys are into the internet and computers. They like to innovate and experiment. They "like taking risks, being entrepreneurial, being collaborative - all behaviours that lead to success in the workforce today".

But while they are rewarded for their behaviour in the workplace, they are punished in school because they are non-conformist, poor at listening and following instructions, and restless.

It is a seductive theory. It seems to fit well with the longer-term trend in England. Up until the late 1970s boys and girls were scoring roughly equally at the then main school-leaving examinations, the O-level and CSE.

But from then on girls began to pull ahead. The change to the GCSE in the late 1980s appears to have coincided with a dramatic opening of the gender gap. Since then the gap has remained steady with a clear disparity in favour of girls.

There are many possible explanations for this. The GCSE is a different type of exam from its predecessors. With its emphasis on course-work, it tends to reward the conscientious student rather than the risk-taker.

The National Curriculum has also encouraged students to take a wider range of exams This may have meant more boys taking more language-based, as opposed to technical, subjects than before.

An Ofsted review of research into gender and educational performance (1998) concluded that the GCSE examination and boys' poor performance in literacy skills and English were important features behind the gender gap.

'Old trap'

It also identified the importance of what happens outside school, particularly employment opportunities and perceptions of the relevance of education to young people's future lives.

It recommended changes in teaching practice to "counter boys' perception of literacy as a feminised subject".

But if Draves and Coates are right, this is falling into the old trap of thinking it is the boys, not the schools, which are the problem.

They argue that boys are doing what is sensible and what is needed for success in future employment.

However, while it would appear to be true that young men are dominating the technology breakthrough areas of the economy, there are also many young men who leave education with few qualifications who do not succeed in the workforce.

To be fair to Draves and Coates, they say their theory applies to boys from the upper-half of the ability and social-class range and they acknowledge there are legitimate concerns about boys from lower income groups.

The difficulty for the school system is that it needs to meet the needs of both groups of boys.

Schools need to do more to encourage and reward the risk-taking, innovative, technology-oriented bent of the bright boys who find the current curriculum irrelevant and constricting.

At the same time, they need to ensure all boys have the literacy, language and social skills to cope in a complex society in which many jobs will involve something other than tinkering with technology.

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