Don't turn back

25th August 2000 at 01:00
AND so, the seemingly inexorable improvement in the A*-C GCSE pass rate continues. Should we uncork the champagne, or are we all becoming blase about this phenomenon?

Most of the pundits will not be impressed, of course. They will scan the results tables and return to the "exams

- are-getting-easier-and-the-nation-is-going-to-the-dogs" theme that they have been plucking away at since the A-level results were published. The marginal drop in the A*-G pass rate and the reminder that boys are gaining fewer higher-grade passes than girl candidates are also certain to attract negative comment. However, schools will surely not be panicked by either criticism.

As we acknowledged last week, boys' performance is a cause for concern - though gender is far from being the most important factor in underachievement. But judging by this week's (admittedly incomplete) GCSE gender data there has been no dramatic drop in boys' attainment level.

Nor is it a peculiarly British problem. It is an issue in other parts of Europe and countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States (where females now gain 54 per cent of highr education places, compared with 41 per cent 30 years ago). This suggests that it is not a particular curriculum or exam system that is responsible.

David Blunkett suspects that boys' attitudes are at the root of the problem. But many other factors, such as the growing aspirations of teenage girls, are clearly at work. Ministers are therefore right to adopt a multi-faceted strategy to improve boys' performance.

The decision to commission research into the effects of single-sex classes should also be welcomed (see page 6). But those who see it as a panacea are likely to be disappointed, even though many boys' grammar schools are undoubtedly successful. As the "Boys' entrance" and "Girls' entrance" signs above old school doorways remind us, single-sex schooling used to be the norm. However, the majority of teachers and parents have come to see such segregation as an aberration. Like Daphne Rae, wife of the former headmaster of Westminster School, they believe that: "Girls and boys grow up more normally together than apart."

It would therefore be strange if we turned back the clock at the start of the new millennium.

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