War of words
That boys do less well than girls in language activities is well known. The question now is whether anything can be done about it. Can Do Better, a report from a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority working party, is an attempt to summarise the position and suggest ways forward.
The education side of the story starts in the early years of pre-schooling. Nursery teachers watching under-fives at play soon discover that boys prefer action fantasy, careering around the room with few words but more sound effects.
One might call this the "grunt-and-shunt" style of play. It is thought by some pre-school teachers to be dangerous, so is often curtailed. Other teachers try to build more structured language into its raw energy.
Boys have always lagged behind girls in learning to read and write in primary school. The standard response to this concern used to be: "Don't worry, the boys will catch up later." Unfortunately, the gap in English actually widens as pupils grow older.
At the end of primary, 69 per cent of 11-year-old girls obtain level 4 English, compared with 57 per cent of boys. By the age of 16, 65 per cent of girls achieve grade C or above in English, compared with 43 per cent of boys. Only 10 years ago more boys than girls went to university. Today, the reverse is true - with 470,500 women undergraduates and 453,600 men.
The QCA report cites not only its own evidence but also some interesting case studies. Boys tend to read less than girls and cover a narrower field. Many prefer non-fiction and are reluctant to read poetry or certain kinds of fiction. They also write in a more restricted range of genres and tend to proofread and correct themselves less thoroughly. Boys are less likely to take part in informal book circles, whereas girls exchange books with friends.
An interesting section in the report describes work done by teachers investigating their own classes. One primary teacher interviewed boys and then planned a programme of fiction around their interests. A secondary English teacher identified 19 activities in his GCSE course and found that boys liked writing about their own experiences, class and group discussions and creative writing, but did not enjoy reading or writing poetry, or drafting.
After an inspection of an 11-18 comprehensive by the Office for Standards in Education, which had highlighted differences in achievement, one teacher decided to observe individual pupils in lessons. Boys were more often off-task than girls.
National figures show that five times as many boys as girls are permanently excluded from secondary school (13 times as many boys as girls in primary school). Poorer behaviour means that, one way or another, boys simply spend less time on the ball. The cumulative effect can be huge. Multiply inattentiveness in a thousand or more English lessons in primary and another thousand in secondary, and it soon adds up.
The highlighting of boys' lower achievement raises several questions. Does it matter if boys do less well than girls in English? With the disappearance of what one might call the "muscled" jobs, it certainly does. As jobs involving heavy manual work have dried up in the wake of the fork-lift truck and automated production, men have lost the edge in the employment market.
Most vacancies today are in service, recreation and leisure, and retailing - the "people" jobs. Employers increasingly prefer women, who not only have more finely developed social and communication skills but are better qualified - one-and-a-half times more likely to have a high grade English GCSE, twice as likely to have passed English at A-level.
So is there anything a teacher can do to help? Can Do Better is full of useful suggestions at both primary and secondary level.
It would be too easy to develop prejudices, to despair when early years "grunt and shunt" become adolescent "laddishness", to assume that girls have a natural edge over boys in English, both sides of their brain being active during language activity, but only one side of boys' brains, or that they are "naturally" better at coursework.
In the 1970s people were resigned to the poor performance of girls. Similar prejudices were rife: girls were bad at maths and science, had no self-confidence, lacked ambition to be anything other than a hairdresser or secretary, couldn't cope with new technology, would never outperform the more competitive boys.
Yet efforts by teachers in many schools have led to a dramatic improvement over the past 20 years. Many assumptions about the supposed "natural" inferiority of girls were seen to be socially conditioned. Less was expected of them, so less was achieved.
It ought not to defeat the combined forces of the teaching profession, parents and others to achieve an equally dramatic improvement in the performance of boys, without in any way impeding the continued progress of girls.
One starting point would be if teachers actually raised the issue with their own classes: "There is evidence that boys are falling further behind girls. Do you think this is true? What is the evidence in this school's results? Is action needed? If so, what?" Sounds like a very good topic for a lively English lesson.
"Can Do Better: raising boys' achievement in English" is being sent to all secondary schools. Primary schools can order free copies from the QCA, tel: 0181 867 3333 Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University