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Gender gap widens to a gulf

The literacy gap between 11-year-old boys and girls is rising - reaching 18 percentage points or more in nearly a third of local authorities.

The areas which saw the greatest overall improvements in literacy this year are among those where boys are falling furthest behind.

Barking and Dagenham, in Essex, is the third most improving authority for literacy yet it has the second largest gender gap in the country. Its success is largely based on girls' achievements which leapt from 60 to 72 per cent this year -outperforming boys by 24 percentage points.

The London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets were also among the top improvers although their boys' scores remained almost constant - prompting fears that boys could be neglected in the push to meet Government targets.

Enfield and Southampton were among the improving authorities which also raised boys' achievement - but boys still made less progress than their female counterparts. Southampton is to encourage schools to set separate targets for boys in an attempt to close the gap.

The biggest gender disparity is on the Isle of Wight where the number of boys reaching level 4 fell to less than half this year. Girls are now a massive 27 percentage points ahead with three in four reaching the required standard.

In Kensington and Chelsea, Redcar and Cleveland, Lewisham, East Riding of Yorkshire, Southwark, Islington and Cornwall, girls are at least 20 percentage points ahead of boys.

Nationally, the English test figures increased by just over 2 per cent this year. But this masked a worrying national decline in boys' reading and writing as their performance decreased slightly to 57 per cent.

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, has promised that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds will reach level 4 by 2002.

This will be difficult unless boys make substantially more progress - in nearly 50 local authorities girls outperform boys by at least 18 percentage points. Boys were at least 9 percentage points behind girls.

While most of the areas where boys lag behind are deprived, others such as Rutland are more affluent although girls outstrip their male classmates by 18 percentage points.

However, boys are keeping pace with girls in maths tests taken by all 11-year-olds. Girls are ahead in only one third of local authorities and then only by up to 5 percentage points.

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