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15th March 1996 at 00:00
Some educational conundrums are more difficult to "crack" than any safe. The underachievement of working-class boys falls into this category. Although the problem is not a new one, nobody yet knows exactly which keys will unlock the boys' latent ability, or even how many locks there are.

Dr Ken Rowe may be correct in thinking (page 8) that the increased emphasis on verbal reasoning ability is widening the gulf between boys' and girls' attainment. But there are many other educational, social, psychological and physiological factors. Among the more important are the earlier maturation of girls (research suggests that female foetuses are more advanced intellectually than male foetuses at six months) and the anti-reading and anti-academic culture that so many boys are sucked into. Nobody loves a boffin but his mother.

Girls also appear to be benefiting from the extra attention of teachers who are more aware that they must not allow boys to dominate lessons. There is ample evidence, too, that girls are becoming increasingly ambitious as new career paths open up to them. Many working-class - or rather not-working-class - boys, on the other hand, can foresee nothing but the life on the dole that their fathers and uncles have experienced for years. Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, is particularly worried about white working-class boys, but the plight of black youngsters is at least as serious, judging by the unemployment figures and many education indices.

The same trends can be seen in many other countries such as the United States, Germany and France, but the disparity between boys' and girls' achievement does appear to have become particularly pronounced in England and Wales since the late 1980s. Parents and teachers never used to fret about girls' early lead, believing that boys would catch up once they got into long trousers. But that is no longer true. Girls finally overtook boys in the two or more A-levels contest in 1989-90, and they are substantially ahead at GCSE; 48 per cent gained A-C grades in 1994, compared with only 40 per cent of boys.

We must therefore seek our own solutions, even if there are some invisible global forces at work. Many local authorities and schools are trying home-made remedies, with mixed success. Shropshire has targeted reluctant boy readers for the past three years, and more schools are separating the sexes, believing that the "peacock effect" - boys' classroom displays for girls - hampers both genders' educational development. However, the wisdom of such strategies is open to question because the 1995 study by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of Manchester University concluded that single-sex schooling offered no clear-cut advantages.

The research reports being prepared for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education may shed more light on what needs to be done. But several conclusions can be reached now, even though some of the really big issues, such as how much reverse discrimination there should be, if any, have yet to be resolved. The first point that must be made is that boys' underachievement is not only a secondary school problem. As the first baseline assessment schemes have revealed that boys' literacy and maths skills are inferior to girls' on entry to school, much more must be done to promote boys' development between birth and age 5. Parenting classes for secondary pupils would help in the long run, but an expansion of nursery schooling in more disadvantaged areas also appears essential.

The fact that boys - particularly those born in the summer months - are behind from the start obviously makes it harder for primaries to ensure that they keep up with girls and develop equally positive attitudes to school, but classroom reading materials could be more "boy-friendly". The same applies to secondary schools, and as three times as many girls as boys "pass" GCSE French in some schools, it is perhaps time that language departments also reviewed their own teaching.

Sir Ron Dearing's still-unannounced plan to allow less academic children to leave school-based courses at 14, if they are plainly not working, and go on to college to try vocational courses or work experience could also help by providing the motivation for literacy and numeracy that so many working-class boys need, particularly if the status of vocational qualifications is raised and the Youth Training scheme is improved.

But ultimately such initiatives will only work at that stage if young men can get real jobs. At present it is hard to see that happening, as the Equal Opportunities Commission, among others, is predicting that male employment will fall by 300,000 by the year 2000 while the number of jobs for women will rise by 500,000. But such prognostications often turn out to be wrong, and the way to disprove this one would be to equip young men with the skills and qualifications that could transform their own - and this country's - prospects in the next century. The nursery school is not too early to start.

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