THE NEWS that 11-year-olds boys seem to have performed better in last summer's reading tests was welcome. The explanation that this was because the reading passage was about spiders, however, was intriguing. The evidence on which we base conclusions about children can be frail and whether a text describes fascinating creepy crawlies or a boring history of yoghurt pots may have a major effect.
Simply reading one or two more sentences in a test can lead to additional months on a pupil's age rating. In the United States children were once offered a dollar if they could do better, using the parallel form of a test they had just completed. Many "improved" their score on the re-test and their apparent competence increased instantaneously.
Like many others I have been concerned at what looks to be a growing gap between the achievements of boys and girls, especially in the field of language. The evidence appears strong from pre-school right up to university.
Studies in nursery schools show that young boys specialise in sound effects, pretending to be jet planes, while girls avidly discuss existentialism.
Throughout primary schools boys lag behind girls in reading, while at secondary level girls are 10 per cent ahead in the five GCSE stakes, get more A-levels and are more likely to win university places.
It looks like bad news for us chaps. In our day, of course, we could multiply up to a million times a million, spell all the words in the dictionary, recite every date from King Ug the First up to the Second World War, skin a grizzly bear and make a roaring fire out of a twig and two pieces of flint.
The popular image of our successors is that they can only operate television remote controls and struggle to read the Beano at the age of 15, while most are drugged up to their eyeballs. Yet this awful stereotype is not true.
The Exeter Schools Health Education Unit study of hundreds of thousands of boys over the past 15 years shows most to be quite sensible characters, boring even.
In general they do their homework, clean their teeth, sleep soundly, smoke less than girls, save their money and very few have alarming case histories.
Although a third of older pupils say they have tried an illegal drug, the figures for each individual banned substance usually show 1 per cent or fewer to be regular users.
So is it really as bad as is made out? Must boys in future come second at everything, other than breaking wind musically and seeing who can widdle highest up the wall? Will the next generation of men exist purely to provide recessive genes, spend their days prone on the settee, supping cans of lager while gawping at 5,000 channels of inter-galactic football?
I put this nightmare scenario to one blokeish audience. "Sounds great," someone said. "When can we start?"
Boys are half our future. They are as loveable, vulnerable, infuriating, and funny as they have always been.
The torpor of adolescence, when a deep grunt and a raised eyebrow are the most energetic responses you will ever get, is not new.
The good news is that many schools have addressed the issue of boys' performance directly. From the 1970s onwards teachers persuaded more girls to believe in themselves and use their talents, leading to spectacular and lasting improvements.
Today there are numerous examples of action on behalf of boys. Some schools have written to parents inviting them to join the school in a shared task. Many teachers have involved pupils themselves, discussing "laddishness" with both boys and girls, in groups and individually. In one school the English teachers interviewed boys and girls to find out about their interests so more reading could be matched to them.
There is still plenty to be done for girls as well, since many, for example, lack confidence in physical science and technology.
It requires skill and sensitivity to explore delicate issues, when boys are jeered at for being a "boff", a "nerd", or a "keano", or to perfect approaches which work well with boys, yet take nothing away from girls.
The results of many successful interventions should soon become apparent.