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Poverty gap beats gender divide;Another voice;Opinion

It's not acceptable that boys will be boys," said schools minister Stephen Byers, No, this was not the latest Department for Education and Employment directive attempting to extend Blairite control to genetics. Rather, it was an expression of ministerial anguish that the Government's literacy targets may not be met unless boys keep up with the educational progress of girls.

Further evidence (if it was needed) that girls out-perform boys was produced and, for several days, it was the topic of newspaper editorials and school-gate chat. The gender gap is one of those issues much loved by phone-in programmes: is it nature or nurture that has left boys trailing in the wake of girl power?

One reason that the issue has so much appeal, not least to the media, is that unlike many educational matters, this appears both simple to grasp and free of jargon. We can all draw on anecdotal evidence to back up one theory or another.

Yes, I thought, I know why girls do better at school: just look at the behaviour of the girls and boys, aged six to 11, in the hockey sessions I coach on Sunday mornings.

The girls are a delight. They listen, follow instructions, pass the ball and are willing to play in any position. The boys cannot stand still to listen, experiment with skills before they have been demonstrated, refuse to pass the ball and all want to be centre-forward.

The over-confidence of the able boys is huge: those who lack natural ability soon resort to larking about rather than risk trying and failing. The result mirrors what appears to happen in education: able boys do very well, boosted by their confidence and willingness to experiment, while many of the others disrupt the sessions and drop out. The girls conscientiously get on with the game and score a high average.

So there we are, boys are a dead loss, unless they happen to be naturally brilliant. Of course, it isn't that simple. In the excitement of the theorising, one simple fact was overlooked: boys are not getting worse but are actually improving in almost all educational measures - just not as quickly as girls.

So what we should really be doing is congratulating those teachers and parents who have worked hard over the past 20 years to overcome the gender inequalities that used to hold back girls. Equal opportunities policies have worked.

We might also ask whether the boy-girl gap is really so significant. It depends how you measure it. We are told that girls beat boys in every local education authority but one, when success is measured by the percentage of pupils getting five GCSEs at grade C or above (researchers will no doubt be rushing to Kensington and Chelsea, the odd one out, to try to find out what is right with their boys, or wrong with their girls).

Take a different measure, though, and the gap does not seem very great. The indefatigable statisticians at pressure group Article 26 have worked out that the difference between boys and girls is much less significant when measured not by the top-end standard of five A-Cs, but by aggregate GCSE point score. The gender gap then shrinks to just under five points or the equivalent of one extra GCSE at grade C.

Now, this is not to belittle the concern over the performance of boys, but to put it into perspective. The real gulf is not between boys and girls but between the top and bottom quarters of the ability range, both male and female. Here it is equivalent to 10 grade Cs.

So what is the reason for this? The Government, with its "zero tolerance" of failure, argues that the gap between high-achieving and low-achieving schools is down to poverty of expectation or teaching. "Poverty is no excuse," it insisted, as it set the literacy targets for each part of the country last week.

It's right: poverty should not be an excuse but it is often a reason. Let us remember that the most worrying under-achievement comes not from boys overall but boys from low-income homes.

Let us encourage fathers to read with their children more often and recruit more male primary teachers, but let us not lose sight of what really shapes educational achievement: family background.

The Government is right to focus its efforts on raising literacy and numeracy. But to ignore the special problems of some schools, and some areas, can lead to unreasonable and unachievable targets. As all teachers know, the effect of failing to meet targets is often demoralisation.

Mike Baker is education correspondent of BBC Television News

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