Education: Non-fiction tempts boys to catch up with the girls

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The Independent Online
Boys should be given fewer story books and more fact-based material if they are to catch up with girls at reading, schools are to be told. The move was revealed as the Government announced a range of measures to redress the balance. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, says it could prove controversial.

Everyone agrees that something has to be done to stop boys from falling further behind girls at school. But not everyone agrees on how to do it.

Figures in the new guidance being sent to all schools this month provide stark reading, and they show that the gender gap appears early. At seven, 21 per cent of girls reach national curriculum level three in English, compared with just 14 per cent of boys. At 11, level four is reached by 69 per cent of girls and 57 per cent of boys, and at 14, level five is reached by 66 per cent of girls and 47 per cent of boys.

Now the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is suggesting that boys might do better if the non-fiction books they read at home are used more in school.

But some English experts are worried that the approach will simply reinforce stereotypes. They agree with the Government's advisers that boys should be helped to catch up through clear goals and more structured lessons. But Ann Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said restricting boys' chances to read stories would be wrong.

"If that's what we are going towards that is a really serious mistake, and a seriously narrow menu to put in front of them. It is important to get them to read whatever they want to read, but I think it would be a great mistake to just feed boys factual things," she said.

The QCA's guidance says inspectors have found that few teachers monitor the differences in boys' and girls' reading patterns effectively. They also found poetry was less popular with boys, who often preferred active pursuits to the more "sedentary" reading and writing.

However, boys at secondary school enjoyed performing, and were often articulate and adventurous in oral sessions. They often read extensively and regularly about their interests and hobbies, but felt that their schools took little account of this.

"They had to be cautious about admitting their pleasure in reading because of negative peer group pressure. They often had to make links with girls or rely on adults for recommendations and for opportunities to share their interest in books," one case study says.

Boys' stories often failed to meet the criteria for high grades at GCSE because although they were action-packed and imaginative they were also poorly plotted and weak on characterisation. Girls, on the other hand, placed more emphasis on emotions and characters.

A spokeswoman from the QCA said the guidance aimed to provide practical tips on how to help boys.

"Can Do Better takes the issue of boys' underachievement one step further beyond the stereotypes, for example by looking at how aspects of school life and teaching arrangements impact on boys' work and attitudes to English," she said.

The new guidance will follow a speech yesterday in Manchester by Stephen Byers, the Schools minister, who blamed "laddish anti-learning culture" for boys' poor performance.