THE COMMON belief that girls have pulled ahead of boys by the end of primary school has been challenged by research which suggests that female superiority has been greatly exaggerated.
Manchester University researchers who carried out an eight-year study of children in the top primary classes of five schools have found that boys were on a par with girls in reading and were significantly better at maths.
The boys also had much greater self-esteem than the girls, according to the researchers, Julie Davies and Ivy Brember, who monitored the children's performance between 1989 and 1996.
"Our results do, however, reflect other findings which show the boys scoring more at the extremes of the range in maths and English while the girls are more clustered towards the middle," they say.
National tests have consistently shown that girls outscore boys in both English and maths at 11. But Davies and Brember insist that the results of the relatively small-scale study, which involved 737 boys and 751 girls in one local authority, merit careful consideration.
The standardised tests they chose for their study - the Mathematics 11 test devised by the National Foundation for Educational Research, the Primary Reading Test, and the Lawseq questionnaire on self-esteem - have been used since the mid-1980s and are regarded as no more "boy friendly" than national curriculum tests.
"We know our research will be criticised because it is focused on five schools but it is no bad thing to be an irritant on the skin of an elephant," Davies says.
"One of the interesting things we discovered is that girls in the last two cohorts outscored the boys in the national English and maths tests even though there was no significant difference in the children's performance in the standardised tests. That is as a reminder that all aspects of test construction, administration and marking must be monitored if we are to minimise gender as a factor in attainment.
"Assessment is clearly a very complex activity which can easily produce invalid data. This should be borne in mind when national test results are relied on so heavily in any debate on standards."
Davies and Brember believe that the gender disparity in self-esteem scores must also be addressed. Teachers need to be even more aware of children's self-esteem levels as it is now recognised that these help to determine success in schoolwork, they say.
"Boys outperforming girls: an eight-year cross-sectional study of attainment and self-esteem in Year 6", by Julie Davies and Ivy Brember, School of Education, University of Manchester tel. 0161-275 3502