Toby Young: Why giving boys chocolate powder and coloured sand is no way to go

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The Independent Online

As the father of three boys under five, I share the Government's concerns. My oldest boy, four-year-old Ludo, started in reception last September and is finding it more difficult to master the basics of reading and writing than his sister did at the equivalent stage. Sasha is now six and has a reading age of nine. Ludo has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, past each developmental milestone – and his two younger brothers are the same. If the discrepancy between them remains, Sasha will start secondary school with a huge advantage over her male siblings.

Where I part company with the Government is in its proposed solution to this problem. Giving boys chocolate powder and coloured sand and encouraging them to make marks on the floor and walls sounds like a parody of the dumbed-down approach to teaching. Are we talking about human beings or chimpanzees? Dawn Primarolo seems to be confusing pedagogy with primatology.

In my experience, the most effective way of kick-starting boys' development is old-fashioned rote learning. At the beginning of 2009, I hired a tutor to teach Latin to Ludo and Sasha and the results have been remarkable. Ludo was three when he started these daily, half-hour sessions and couldn't even count to 10, let alone write his own name. Almost 12 months later, he can count to 20, write simple words like "mum" and "dad" and recite his times tables up to five. As for his six-year-old sister, I'm convinced she could achieve a passing grade in GCSE Latin.

The reason that boys fall behind girls during these early years is because of the new softly-softly approach to education. Girls are natural learners, eager to soak up new information, whereas boys are more easily distracted with shorter attention spans. That means that a modern classroom environment, in which children are left to learn at their own pace, will automatically favour girls over boys.

There's plenty of evidence that a more traditional approach will close the performance gap – you only have to turn back the clock. My favourite example of just how much can be achieved by a young boy is the following passage from the biography of Francis Dalton, the famous Victorian polymath: "I am four years old and can read any English book. I can say all the Latin substantive and adjectives and active verbs besides 52 lines of Latin poetry. I can cast up any sum in addition and multiply by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10. I can also say the pence table. I read French a little and I know the Clock."

You can be sure that his father, Samuel Tertius Galton, didn't achieve these results with chocolate powder and coloured sand.