There is now clear evidence of a persisting ‘gap’ in the overall academic achievements of boys compared to girls, as the annual GCSE and A-level results published each summer demonstrate. This gap has widened from about 2% in 1988/89 (when GCSEs replaced O-levels) to over 10% today, with an even wider gap in literacy amongst some cohorts. Although girls also under-achieve academically, the great majority of under-achievers are boys. The Government is aware of the problem, and some initiatives have been put in place, but to date there has been little discernible improvement. An Australian parliamentary enquiry in 2002(1), where a similar phenomenon exists, suggested that it extends to almost all OECD countries.
Children, both boys and girls, who are at present under-achieving academically, are likely to face life-long socio-economic disadvantage in consequence.
There is increasing anxiety amongst parents and educational authorities over this academic gap and educational standards generally, which affects some ethnic groups more than others. Research also suggests a relationship with both socio-economic and parental status.
Various explanations have been offered to account for the difference in academic achievement between boys and girls. However, the phenomenon has been only partially explained, since a range of social and cultural changes could apply. Changes in the methods of teaching and of testing boys and girls possibly contribute. Another factor could be the widespread lack of male teachers, especially at primary school level. In England, only about 13% of teachers at primary schools are male. The absence of fathers in the home for increasing numbers of boys (and girls) serves to compound the disadvantage of a lack of positive role models suffered by these children.
Beyond a certain age, boys respond to the male ethos in sport and also in learning. It is an important factor in their learning about the positive aspects of masculinity and manhood. It could be argued therefore, that redressing the present extreme shortage of this male ethos in the great majority of primary schools is an issue of the utmost importance for the welfare and future success of boys and therefore of our whole society, irrespective of academic achievement. Failure to nurture and provide for the different needs of boys is already producing huge and visible social problems. It is also a human rights issue.