The attainment gap between boys and girls is now wider than ever but addressing boys' weaknesses in writing could hold part of the answer. This emerges from the most recent detailed research by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, but convincing explanations seem as complex as ever involving home, school and personal factors.
Although boys have been underperforming for some years, ministers have at last taken notice because of fears about links between school disaffection, truancy and youth crime (pages 8-9).
Figures for the 1996 examinations show that girls achieved an average of 0.32 of a grade better than boys over all Standard grade subjects compared with 0.25 in 1992. With pupils taking seven or eight Standard grades, girls on average emerge with a Standard grade 2 while boys have a Standard grade 4.
The improvement by girls even extends to maths, hitherto thought to be a male preserve, where girls' Standard grade results were worse than those of boys in 1992 but are now a tenth of a grade better. The only Standard grade subjects in which boys consistently outstripped girls between 1992-96 have been PE and general science.
At Higher grade, the pass rate for girls in 1992 was 2 per cent better than boys. The figure rose to 4 per cent by 1996, having been as high as 5 per cent in 1995. Boys' pass rates were better in biology and chemistry but girls may now have caught up.
Although the Higher figures are more difficult to interpret because of greater selection and specialisation, the SQA suggests they are more of a cause for concern. Christine de Luca of the authority's assessment research unit says that since more girls stay on after the age of 16 the expectation is that their average grades would be lower because they are a wider ability group whereas boys form a more select pool.
In fact, Ms de Luca says, the reverse is the case. But the gap in attainment between the sexes is not as great at Higher as it is at Standard grade, possibly because boys perform better as they mature. Other factors may be girls' willingness to work harder, peer pressure on boys not to appear "diligent", the attitude of teachers to boys and the nature of assessment.
Ms de Luca believes a particularly significant finding is the "consistently poor showing" of boys in written English compared with the other three elements. The importance of writing generally could therefore account for some of the gender differences in other subjects. Boys may need specific support in writing and also in developing more effective study habits.
The SQA's research reveals that boys do better when given a set of data to interpret, when short factual responses are required and when required to perform live, as in drama. Girls' superiority emerges if the requirements are for personal or extended responses, analytical or investigative approaches, concentrated listening, producing folios of work and and presentational skills.
Ms de Luca comments: "This underlines the importance we have always attached to a range of tasks because there is an interaction between assessment tasks and gender and because some tasks are more motivating than others."
The Equal Opportunities Commission has already called for research into boys' lack of success at Standard grade and Higher. Morag Alexander, the commission's Scottish director, described the situation last month as a "cause for concern".
Further SQA research shows virtually no differences in the results gained by boys and girls in the 1987 OrdinaryStandard grade or Higher results in the major subjects. By 1996 this had been transformed into a growing and consistent gap as girls pulled ahead.