The growing gender gap was acknowledged by ministers as one of the most serious problems facing schools when Labour won the 1997 election. It announced a co-ordinated approach to challenge the laddish anti-learning culture, which included a requirement for local authorities to tackle the issue and curriculum advice for teachers from the exam watchdog.
The measures have made little difference. The gulf between the sexes at GCSE has remained constant over the past few years, with 10 per cent more girls gaining five good passes. More than 6 per cent of boys leave school with no GCSEs.
Sue Hackman, new head of the Government's strategy to overhaul secondary education, said tackling boys' underachievement was now an urgent priority.
Within days of her appointment, she established a working group to look at gender issues. She will work closely with David Hopkins, head of the standards and effectiveness unit, and with Kevan Collins, new director of the primary strategy.
She said: "It was the first thing I did after getting the job. We need to address the problem as quickly as possible. I do know the gender issue is not going to be an easy one to solve because people have tried it before. But ministers are very keen for us to explore this. People feel passionately about it."
Attainment in English, where 75 per cent of girls achieve level 5 in tests for 14-year-olds compared to 58 per cent of their male classmates, will be a focus. The links between ethnic groups and gender attainment will also be on the agenda, as concern grows about the progress of African-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi boys.
The group will draw on findings from a government-commissioned three-year study by academics at Cambridge University.
Working with 60 schools, it has pinpointed successful strategies for raising boys' achievement.
The study's results are expected to be published later in the spring.
Sue Hackman, 17