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Whatever happened to the likely lads?

The 20-year drive to reverse the academic underachievement of girls has worked. Feminism and the culture of equality that led to the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act has left girls ahead of their male peers in virtually every subject at GCSE. It is not until they reach university that boys catch up.

It is a problem which has been troubling educationists since 1988 when a 4 per cent achievement gap between boys and girls was first spotted. But is it a question of teaching methods and attitudes, or are there biological and emotional reasons for the decline in the performance of boys?

According to Janette Elwood, a researcher at London University's Institute of Education, the fall in boys' progress is linked to unemployment among males.

Ms Elwood also believes that the transition to coursework-dominated GCSE may have favoured girls, who tend to be more conscientious about homework. O-levels suited boys better because they could be passed with last-minute revision.

Another report on schools in Devon found that boys were more image-conscious than girls, believing that they gained street credibility by refusing to work and that carrying bags or pens was "naff". They also lacked language and social skills which affected their employability.

Professor Ted Wragg, director of education at Exeter University and a TES columnist, said that these factors, coupled with a decline in manufacturing industry and manual jobs, were demotivating young men, particularly among the white working classes.

Teachers have also offered their own opinions based on years of experience in the classroom.

Investigations carried out by Peter Downes, former head of Hinchingbrooke School in Cambridgeshire, revealed that boys could not concentrate for more than five minutes without seeking encouragement and interaction from the teacher. Girls, on the other hand, could focus on their work for up to 13 minutes at a time. They were more able to work alone, or in groups and did not require the constant attention of the teacher.

Mr Downes added that parents often treated their children differently. They tended to talk to daughters, but keep boys amused by playing with them.

Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph warned a London teachers' conference last year that Britain was raising "the most under-fathered generation which has ever lived on earth". He recommended reading stories to boys at bedtime - even up to age 10 - because this helped to develop the part of the brain which deals with language skills.

He said that poor academic performance among boys was due to too few good male role models who could show that aggression and sexism were unacceptable.

He also suggested that boys might do better at school if they started a year later than girls - at age six - to give them more time to acquire skills. This would enable them to progress through school with girls who were a year younger, so they did not feel left behind.

Dorothy Lepkowska

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