Welsh pupils continue to achieve better results at GCSE than their English counterparts, but high-achieving girls are leaving boys even further behind in the exams race.
The results, published this week, reveal that 97.8 per cent of Welsh exam entries received a pass grade of A*-G, compared with 97.6 per cent nationally. While there was no change in the national pass rate from last year, the Welsh results increased by 0.2 per cent.
Welsh pupils performed slightly better than the national average at all levels. More than 60 per cent of entries received an A*-C grade, compared with 59.2 per cent nationally. And, while 17.4 per cent of entries nationally were awarded A or A* grades, 17.6 per cent of Welsh entries reached this standard.
But Wales has traditionally suffered from a large gap between boys' and girls' achievement at the highest level. Despite efforts by the Assembly Government, this continues to grow. While 20.9 per cent of female GCSE entries received an A or A* grade, only 14.2 per cent of male entries reached the same level, compared with 20 per cent and 13.9 per cent last year. A* grades were awarded to 7.3 per cent of girls' entries and 4.5 per cent of boys'.
Mal Davies, headteacher of Willows high, in Cardiff, believes that this continuing gender gap is explained by teenage boys' fear of failure.
He said: "It's not cool for boys to be seen to be trying too hard. If they put in a lot of work and don't do well, there's a loss of self-esteem. It's an immature attitude, but it seems there's a greater maturity among young girls."
But Rhys Williams, of the National Union of Teachers Cymru, believes that the problem also has broader social roots. "There's an increasing problem recruiting men to teaching posts," he said. "It may be that there are no appropriate role-models for boys to help them to achieve their potential," he said.
The GCSE results have also revealed an increasing trend among Welsh pupils towards studying their own language, rather than those of other European countries. This year, there were 5,049 entries for Welsh as a first language, compared with 4,899 last year.
Entrant numbers for Welsh as a second language rose from 11,780 in 2003 to 12,185 in 2004. But the numbers of entries for French and German have dropped since last year.
Stefan Berger, professor of humanities at the University of Glamorgan, insists that it is vital for pupils to take up a European language as well as Welsh.
He said: "Learning a language makes you less insular, and opens up all sorts of employment opportunities."
The first results for the new Welsh Baccalaureate were also published this week. Ninety candidates for the intermediate-level qualification, which is being piloted in nine schools and colleges, successfully completed elements of the two-year course.
Eleven candidates finished the entire course in one year, receiving their intermediate diploma. Pupils studying for the qualification were required to complete a vocational element, along with a compulsory core, including work experience, community service and a module on Wales, Europe and the world.
Jane Carver, course manager at Coleg Gwent, in Blaenau Gwent, where eight pupils achieved the intermediate diploma, said: "The pupils have become aware of local and national topics that wouldn't have come up during their normal courses. It's broadened their horizons."
Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, said: "These results show clearly that Wales is a Learning Country, where all young people have the opportunity to give their best and achieve their best."