Stubborn gender gap baffles the experts

Researchers are to investigate why assessment seems to favour girls in almost every subject

Officials are about to commission research examining the trailing performance of boys as school schemes fail to narrow the gender divide in achievement rates.

Their decision appears to have been influenced by the teacher assessment results in Wales for the last academic year, published earlier this month. Girls outperformed boys in almost every subject at key stages 1, 2 and 3. The greatest difference was in English; the smallest in science and mathematics. But the gap had narrowed slightly on 2007.

The Assembly Government promised an inquiry into the gender gap a year ago. A spokesperson said last week teacher assessment would be looked at specifically.

Meanwhile, experts are increasingly blaming the education structure for the phenomenon, claiming it institutionally favours girls.

Professor Alison Wolf, of King's College London, believes the exam system of modular A-levels and GCSEs, and the emphasis on essay writing in some subjects, are the main culprits. She said in a debate in the capital earlier this month, and reported in last week's TES Cymru: "There is evidence that it is quite normal for boys to learn late."

Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, said after conducting research this year that despite everyone's best efforts the gender gap had "stubbornly resisted" closing. Its main conclusion was that boys are bettered by girls because they struggle with literacy. The government said then that it would use the new school effectiveness framework, which emphasises sharing good practice, to tackle the problem.

But others see a lack of competitiveness and male role models in the classroom as a huge barrier.

Until recently, Pembroke School, a 11-18 comprehensive with 1,600 pupils, bucked the national trend: its boys narrowly outperformed girls. But Frank Ciccotti, the headteacher, said there had been "a marked fall" in the performance of boys, especially with literacy.

"We (schools) need more indication of what actually works, and what doesn't. One of the most important things is strong behaviour management," he said.

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