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Olympian trial of the gender gap

Though it barely seems credible, Britain's education politicians do have a lot in common with Olympic athletes. For both, the smallest of margins separate success and failure. Last week the Welsh Assembly welcomed the news that the A-level pass rate had edged up by 0.1 per cent - an ideal outcome, as it was not enough to indicate grade inflation and yet demonstrated progress. This week we learn that the GCSE pass rate in Wales has increased by 0.2 per cent, whereas England's tally has remained static.

We should not take pride in besting the English (we can save that for the rugby). But Welsh teachers should derive some quiet satisfaction from these - mostly positive - statistics. They do not quite prove, as Jane Davidson has claimed, that "Wales is a Learning Country where all pupils...

have the opportunity to give their best and achieve their best." We have not reached that nirvana yet. But the Assembly's anti-truancy measures and the introduction of education maintenance allowances for post-16 students will help more teenagers to fulfil their potential.

It is, however, disturbing to be told that not only are girls getting more GCSEs than boys - we already knew that - they are also far more likely to gain an A or A* (almost 21 per cent of girls' entries, but only 14 per cent of boys' achieve these grades). It is years since the gender gap was identified but the education service still seems powerless to close it.

The declining number of French and German GCSE candidates is also disappointing because CILT Cymru, the languages centre, has made tremendous efforts to stem the haemorrhage. This is not a Wales-only problem, of course. Scots and English teenagers are reluctant linguists, too - but that will be little comfort to business people who are keen to build stronger trading ties with Europe. They know the truth of the old saying: "You can buy in English but if you want to sell, you need to speak your customer's language."

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