The Equal Opportunities Commission has called for research into boys' poor examination showing, ironically, after stepping up its campaign for women's equality.
Morag Alexander, the commission's Scottish director, has accepted that boys' lack of success at Standard grade and Higher exams is a "cause for concern". The EOC has a legal duty to look at any gender imbalance.
"There's not enough research on this and I very much think we need to look at the under-performance of boys. We're pleased to see girls doing well but I do not think we understand enough about what's going on," Mrs Alexander said.
She was speaking after a meeting with the Educational Institute of Scotland, which is backing the campaign for more women in promoted teaching posts. It also wants more girls in secondary to choose traditional boys' subjects. The latest initiative, including writing to Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, follows a joint conference earlier this year.
Meanwhile, a summary of trends in gender and attainment, carried out by Janet Powney at the Scottish Council for Research in Education, underlines the widening gap between girls and boys over the past ten years. Figures published last week south of the border confirm young Scots are in line with the UK pattern.
The SCRE research points out girls' higher performance is notable in the early years of schooling and continues through secondary and into higher education. What little published evidence there is on gender and attainment has largely focused on girls' perceived under-achievement in English, maths and science.
The reality is now rather different. More girls sit Standard grade and Higher exams and, on average, gain slightly better grades. At the top end, 4 per cent more girls leave with five or more Highers. In 1983-84, 11 per cent of both sexes achieved five or more Highers. But, over 10 years, the percentages rose disproportionately to 16 per cent of boys and 20 per cent of girls.
Boys only consistently outperform in physical education while girls do particularly well in language and communication and creative subjects. In 1995, for the first time, girls had a better relative performance in Higher maths.
Both the EOC and EIS report continuing gender differences in curriculum choice. Ronnie Smith, EIS general secretary, said four times as many boys opted for important growth areas such as computing studies, which could affect later career choices.
He commented: "The exam performance of girls has been particularly successful but success in schools is not replicated by success in the job market in later years. Girls are more likely to end up in ill-paid, often part-time or casual employment. I believe the way to address this is through subject choice in secondary schools. Recent research evidence confirms that too many young people choose options which they see as 'appropriate' to their gender" Ms Powney notes girls usually do well on coursework. The Assessment of Achievement Programme tests pupils in P4, P7 and S2 and shows that girls outperform boys in reading, writing and talking. They do equally well in maths and science in primary but by S2 "significant differences" emerge. Boys in second year score higher on science tasks which cover recall and explanation but, overall, girls are better at tasks which require handling information, observation, inferring and investigation.
Across the UK, according to Ms Powney, girls stay on longer at school, leave with better qualifications and are more likely to continue their education after leaving school.
She comments: "The question is whether such outcomes at school and higher education reflect approaches to assessment, methods of teaching and or expectations of society" There are well established relationships between socio-economic status and educational attainment, Ms Powney notes, but researchers admit they do not know why differences remain between boys and girls in each social class. South of the border, a researcher studying maths' tests found girls were more conscientious, a finding likely to apply in Scotland.
Ms Powney suggests schools should be more aware of practices which could disadvantage either sex, monitor ways of teaching and assessing students and embed equality issues in learning and teaching.
The EOCEIS campaign to recruit more women for senior posts could be strengthened by training to prepare women for promotion, according to Mrs Alexander.
She ruled out special treatment at interviews which would break equal opportunity legislation but backed extra training for school boards who appoint staff. They had to make sure there was no discrimination against men or women.
"We're saying school boards should appoint the best person for the job, " she said.
Figures for 1996 show there were 28 women secondary heads in Scotland (7 per cent) and 370 men. Women make up 51 per cent of the secondary profession but only 36 per cent are principal teachers. In primaries, 91 per cent of teachers are women but only 73 per cent are heads.
The EOCEIS are also urging the Scottish Office to introduce equality indicators into inspections and an equality award to help raise the profile of the issue.