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(Early Years Update, 2004)

Did you see the press reports about chimpanzees a few weeks ago? Apparently, little
boy chimps learn to perform fine motor tasks much more slowly than little girl
chimps. When the mother chimpanzee demonstrates how to poke a stick into a
termite nest, and twist it round so it’s covered with tasty termites, the female infants
sit watching with rapt attention. The young males, however, swiftly lose interest and
run off to play in the trees.

Girl chimps soon become adept at termite-sticking themselves, while boy chimps
become adept at swinging through the branches and play-fighting. And this is as it
should be, because when they grow up, the females will rely on termites as a major
source of protein, while males will be out in the forest hunting for their food.

In fact, the male chimps do learn to poke about for termites too. They just take longer
over it than the females, because they have other, large-scale motor tasks to master.
The female chimps don’t need to learn how to swing in the trees as they will spend
most of their adult lives either pregnant or carrying infants. Over-vigorous tree-
swinging in these circumstances is not advisable.

If I were a man, I’d be miffed that The Independent gave this story the headline:
Females have been faster learners for five million years. Females are not faster
learners, they’re different learners, because nature designed them to perform different
tasks. Female apes, including homo sapiens, did not need the strong visuo-spatial
ability and large-scale motor control required to take part in the hunt. They developed
different strengths, relating to fine motor control and communication with the other
females, as collaboration around the camp fire was important if their offspring were to

In fact, many linguists believe that spoken language is an off-shoot of leisure-time
grooming. At one moment in history, primates were sitting picking fleas out of each
other’s fur in a friendly, collaborative sort of way; the next they’d started making eye
contact and grunting. A few millennia down the road, and they’re having a
conversation about last night’s Big Brother. Grooming is an important way of
maintaining social cohesion within primate groups and it’s more pronounced in the
female of the species: think about all those little girls plaiting each other’s hair during

Then think about left and right brain dominance. The left brain is the organized side,
dealing with language, logic, order and sequence. The right brain is the holistic side,
concerned with overviews, movement, creativity, visuo-spatial skills. Is it any
wonder that the male hormone, testosterone, accelerates right-brain development so
that male primates are slower to develop the linguistic and small-scale sequential
skills that rely heavily on left-brain functions?

It’s not that they don’t develop these left-brain skills eventually: given a suitable
learning environment, sufficient motivation, good teaching and plenty of practice,
males can learn termite-sticking and social grunting just as well as females. It’s just
that they’ve got other important skills to develop as well. Skills that in the past,
females didn’t have much use for – although again, given suitable learning
opportunities, females can also acquire all the right-brain skills. Male and female
brains are potentially the same – and the most successful brains are the most balanced

Sadly, the British education system still hasn’t got to grips with the evidence about
cognition. Despite endless research findings that boys ‘learn more slowly than girls’
(which actually means that they learn the small, sequential, left-brain skills and fine
motor control required for literacy and numeracy more slowly than girls), we still
expect all children to learn these skills at the same time and speed. Indeed, we expect
them to learn to read and write a good two years before the vast majority of children
in other countries. And then we wonder why we have a vast gender gap in academic
achievement (this gender gap is statistically much more significant in the handful of
countries where children start formal education before the age of six).

As well as letting the boys down, of course, we are also letting down the girls. Human
culture has moved on, and these girls will no longer be stuck by the campfire raising
babies. But by patting them congratulatorily on the head as they successfully perform
our left-brain rituals, and failing to provide opportunities for large-scale play and
visuo-spatial development, we’re denying them opportunities to develop
complementary right-brain skills. (It’s a small point, but how many women do you
know who are incapable of parking a car?)

In more enlightened countries, like Sweden and Finland, education begins with a
three-year ‘kindergarten curriculum’, with structured attention to speaking and
listening, attentional skills, pre-reading skills, and the physical control required for
handwriting. Interwoven with this are opportunities for large-scale play, visuo-spatial
development, and outdoor activities. No child is expected to start reading and writing
until they are seven, but every child is expected to become a balanced, well-rounded
successful learner.

The education authorities in Wales and Northern Ireland are already developing such
curricula for their children (although in both these countries, I fear they have still not
paid sufficient attention to the increased need, in a TV-dominated culture, for
structured language and listening support). The early intervention movement in
Scotland also aims to improve the quality of early years provision. However, in
England, despite the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, teachers are still
caught up in a relentless drive for early literacy skills culminating in the Key Stage 1
SATs. Until our government sees the light, we shall continue to condemn large
numbers of our children – especially boys – to early failure. And we shall fail to
develop the full potential of many thousands more.

Foundations of Literacy by Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley is available from Network
Press (01785 225515) at £17.95.

 Sue Palmer, 2004

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