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Male brain rattled by curriculum 'oestrogen'

Elaine Williams on concern over white working-class boys' underachievement

Is the curriculum becoming more female? And, if so, is this an explanation for the widening disparity between boys and girls that has so alarmed the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead?

Dr Ken Rowe, a research fellow from the University of Melbourne, certainly thinks so, and he believes there is evidence from across the English-speaking world to back him up.

His theory sounds like the academic equivalent of oestrogen in the water, dispatching male brain cells as surely as spermatozoa. In fact he is talking about nothing more sinister than an increasing emphasis on verbal reasoning and analysing context, promoted by both the national curriculum and the GCSE. Boys, of course require such skills just as much as girls in the hunt for employment: but all research suggests they are less likely to have them before, during or after their compulsory education.

Mr Woodhead will no doubt be considering this explanation, among a baffling range of others. In an article in The Times last week he announced that "the failure of boys and in particular white working-class boys is one of the most disturbing problems we face within the whole education system." As to the solution however, he confessed himself at a loss: "The fact is that our most disadvantaged children especially boys, remain disadvantaged at the end of their schooling. Why? The honest answer is that nobody knows and it becomes increasingly important that we find out."

The statistics of boys' underachievement in comparison with girls are all too obvious. Girls are now more successful at every level in the national curriculum, and in every GCSE subject bar physics.

The latest analysis of public exams from Jannette Elwood at London University's Institute of Education is instructive: * More boys than girls enter GCSE examinations in the first place: in 1994 girls provided 51 per cent of the total GCSE entry despite making up only 48.5 per cent of the 16-year-old cohort.

* Girls emerge better qualified. In 1994 they gained 8 per cent more A-C grades than boys. This figure had increased from 4 per cent in the first year of the GCSE. In English, girls currently gain 16 per cent more grades A-C than boys.

Dr Rowe's research is based on more than 300 Australian schools and backed up with comparable data from Canada and Great Britain. "There's been quite a marked increase in the requirement for literacy skills and more particularly verbal reasoning skills; in which we know from extensive research girls have a particular advantage." he says.

"Even in traditionally male subjects like maths and physics, the verbal reasoning skills required are immense. This is one reason why there's an increasing differential."

This finding ties in neatly with the conclusions drawn by Pat Murphy from the Open University and Caroline Gipps from the London Institute, who found that girls have a marked preference for know-ledge set in its context. Boys, on the other hand, prefer their information abstract.

"Girls pay attention to context and they value it," says Dr Gipps. "Boys tend to prefer to learn things abstracted and out of context. If it were presented in a narrative way on the one hand and graphically on the other, the girls would be more attracted to and better able to deal with the narrative."

All the evidence points to remarkable advances on the part of girls, aided by the education system and probably influenced by an increased demand for skilled workers. It does not however suggest any particular decline on the part of boys, says Dr Gipps - not in academic terms at any rate: "It does look as though working class boys are performing quite poorly. But that's nothing new. Research has always shown that that group is a cause for concern."

In which case, does the difference matter? After all, at A-level - the point at which so many top jobs and university places are decided - boys continue to do well. Males outperform females by an average of 3 per cent in English literature grades A to C between 1990 and 1993. This is despite the fact that at the GCSE level, women obtain 13 per cent more A-C grades. It can in part be explained by the fact that the boys taking English A-level will be carefully selected.

But girls taking A-level physics - where the entry will be even more selective - outperform men by an average of only 0.1 per cent over the same period, whereas they were continually obtaining at least 4 per cent more top grades at GCSE.

Ken Rowe believes that the failure of boys certainly does matter, not least because it is associated with an alarming rate of disaffection - results which can again be seen across the English-speaking world.

"We're concerned about the increasing differential of students' attitude towards school at the age of eight or nine," he says. "Increasingly girls prefer being at school significantly more than boys. We're almost in danger of developing an educational underclass - consisting of boys." One particularly ugly manifestation of this is the rising number of male attacks on female pupils in the Western world.

"It's worrying in the sense that the kinds of curriculum demands we're placing on students at key stages - such as at GCSE - are likely to produce a marked gender imbalance," says Dr Rowe. "In short it affects people's life chances. "

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