A report published today by the Office for Standards in Education, based on observing lessons in 51 secondary and middle schools, argues that good teachers can often overcome the stereotyping which leads to boys performing less well in English.
Exam results show a wide gap in performance, even though there is no firm evidence of any difference in innate language ability between the sexes. Schools enter fewer boys for GCSE English. Of those who were entered in 1991 at the age of 16, 60 per cent of girls gained a high grade (A to C), against 45.5 per cent of boys. For English literature, 63.5 per cent of girls gained good grades, against 49.5 per cent of boys. Twice as many girls start A-level English courses.
Most teachers accept that boys have a different attitude to reading and writing, but few schools monitor boys' interest and experience, and none of those visited had any specific programme aimed at improving boys' interest.
Inspectors found that individual teachers who were sensitive to the difference had 'a noticeable impact on the attitudes of boys and girls'. However, teachers spoke more sharply to boys.
Boys preferred to read horror, science fiction, fantasy and adventure stories, or books about football, fishing and computers. Many teachers barely monitored their pupils' voluntary reading to try to encourage wider interests.
Poetry, in particular, was 'sometimes very unpopular with boys', because it had 'an uncertain presence in the English curriculum of many schools'.
Girls consistently received higher marks for written work, wrote at greater length and were more likely to have their work displayed. Teachers believed girls were neater, more accurate, more thorough, better at spelling, less likely to use technical terms, and more enthusiastic about writing. Where pupils were set by ability, the top groups almost always had more girls, and the bottom groups were mainly boys. The inspectors recommend schools review their setting policies to counter that imbalance: 'The general absence of clearly thought-out and welldefined criteria for placing pupils in different groups suggests that the degree of differentiation may owe as much to teachers' expectations as to contrasts in boys' and girls' abilities in English.'
The only work in which boys performed equally well was spoken English. They enjoyed discussions, and reading plays aloud. However, boys tended to dominate talk, offer more strong opinions, answer more questions and interrupt more frequently. Teachers rarely attempted to encourage boys to be more considerate, and girls to be more confident.
'It is particularly important for boys to develop a clearer understanding of the importance of sympathetic listening as a central feature of successful group and class discussion,' the inspectors say.
Boys and English, DFE Publications Centre, PO Box 2193, London E15 2EU.Reuse content