Boys are rapidly closing the attainment gap on girls at Higher and Advanced Higher, it emerged this week. A crucial factor is said to be the "architecture" of the Higher Still programme, specifically its courses and units as well as the focus on internal assessment.
As the 2006 diet of national exams got under way on Tuesday, an analysis of last year's results shows that Scotland can lay claims to an international first in narrowing significant differences in pass rates between girls and boys.
At Higher, the difference is now down to 2 per cent, against five per cent in 2002. At Advanced Higher, a 6 per cent pass rate gap in 2002 has been cut to just 2 per cent.
But one union leader has cautioned that many girls are "significantly underperforming because of social pressures". Marie Allan, education convener of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said some girls were becoming less committed to learning as distractions grew.
From the early stages in primary, girls are still ahead of boys in key aspects of the curriculum and maintain that advantage throughout schooling.
It is a similar story across western countries.
But Anton Colella, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, has revealed an exceptional pattern of achievement by boys since the Higher Still programme was introduced seven years ago.
In 2002, the Higher pass rate for boys was 70 per cent. This rose in 2005 to 72 per cent. At the same time, the pass rate for girls slipped back from 75 per cent to 74 per cent, a point that underlines Ms Allan's concerns.
At Advanced Higher in 2002, boys had a pass rate of 71 per cent against 77 per cent for girls. This has now moved to 76 per cent for boys and 78 per cent for girls.
"Something is happening here," Mr Colella told last week's Scottish Executive conference on the national reforms (page four). "I know there are implications about the burden of assessment and the unintended consequences of what assessment is doing, but something is happening to the boys and we need to encourage it and develop it further," he said.
Brian Cooklin, headteacher of Stonelaw High in South Lanarkshire and education convener of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said he was surprised by the findings "because research shows it's a question of maturity".
Emotionally and intellectually, boys matured later than girls and it was only after they went on to university that they began to outstrip girls in attainment, Mr Cooklin said.
Ms Allan, depute headteacher at Holy Rood High in Edinburgh, believes that a combination of learning and teaching strategies specifically targeted at boys, alongside more appropriate courses and different assessment procedures under Higher Still, may be the reason for the narrowing attainment gap.
In her own subject of English, texts have been introduced to suit boys'
interests. Teachers were much more aware of different learning styles and what might be more appropriate for boys, Ms Allan said.