Teachers are sometimes blamed for the fact that boys now tend to perform worse at school than girls. The high proportion of teachers who are women is held up as proof that the curriculum has become increasingly "feminised", letting down male pupils.
Past research has added to these claims by suggesting that boys make up more of the top performers when they start school, then fall behind girls in later years. However, a new study has found that girls are already ahead of boys in the high-ability group by the age of 5.
Dr Kirstine Hansen and Dr Elizabeth Jones, researchers at London University's Institute of Education, took a sample of 8,394 pupils from the Millennium Cohort Study of children born in 2000. They then analysed tests and surveys the pupils took when they were aged 3 and 5.
Examining test scores from British Ability Scales (which test verbal, visual and non-verbal reasoning) and the teacher-assessed Foundation Stage Profile (which measures six main areas of learning), the researchers identified that more girls scored in the higher group than boys. In general, the researchers found, there are more girls than boys among the top 10 per cent of pupils and more boys than girls in the bottom 10 per cent.
Why are boys behind from such an early age? According to the report's authors, little research is being undertaken to figure this out. Dr Hansen says bias by teachers towards female pupils is still likely to be a factor: assessments carried out by teachers showed a greater difference between the genders than those without teacher involvement.
"While we do not have direct evidence, we can speculate that, as teaching is a female-dominated profession, particularly at primary level, female teachers feel they get a greater response from their female pupils - they are stereotypically easier to teach as they come forward more in lessons ... and put their hands up more," she says. "In turn, teachers seem to react in a more favourable way when assessing girls."
Yet the two data samples also show that the discrepancy exists in evidence not marked by teachers. Therefore, the difference in attainment cannot be purely limited to teacher bias.
The research by Dr Hansen and Dr Jones could appear to challenge the reasoning of philosophers such as Dr Helena Cronin at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dr Cronin has previously suggested that boys, while not generally achieving more than girls, tend to excel the greatest - a case, as she puts it, of "more dumbbells but more Nobels".
She argued in 2008 that, because of evolutionary differences, "females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males, the variance - the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst - can be vast ... Males are almost bound to be over- represented both at the bottom and at the top."
Dr Cronin still argues that if testing was limited to maths and science and looked purely at the top rung, boys would outshine girls. She claims the "Nobels" effect is far greater in maths, engineering, ICT, physics and the other "hard" or numerical sciences.
While the Institute of Education research shows that girls do exceed boys at the top across the subject spectrum, Dr Hansen also acknowledges that, paradoxically, males do better in the workplace than females and says this deserves research attention.
But for the moment, the researchers argue that, whatever the gender distributions for particular subject areas, schools are strongly underperforming when it comes to teaching boys. And this trend needs to be urgently and proactively reversed.
"Schools need to specifically target these boys, particularly Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian boys who are dramatically behind their female peers," Dr Hansen says. She argues that if schools can engage these boys, the statistics will start to turn around.
"Schools should think about the successful strategies they are using for girls and should try to apply these to boys. Studies have shown that girls are more likely to be involved in active learning in the classroom ... boys need to be, too."
Boys are fully aware when teachers are reacting badly to them and inevitably start to play up to this, fulfilling a prophecy of underachievement, Dr Hansen argues. "Teachers need to start praising boys - even if they do not necessarily deserve it - to keep them engaged," she says.
"Ethnicity and Gender Gaps in Early Childhood" by Dr Kirstine Hansen and Dr Elizabeth Jones was published in the British Educational Research Journal in October 2011 and is available online at http:bit.lyxEq8LV
Girls of all races tended to outshine boys' scores, except among black children, the study found.
Although black boys underachieved against girls generally, they were more likely to get results in the top 10 per cent.
Among all the ethnic groups tested, Pakistani, black and Bangladeshi boys had the largest gender gap, and white children the smallest.
Source: Foundation Stage Profile.