The attention span of modern pupils is so limited that the majority of schoolboys switch off by the 100th page of a book, and some boys can barely make it past the first few pages according to new research published today.
While this is disheartening news, it is also unsurprising. The educational achievement gender gap appears to be widening with the publication of each research report. A recent OFSTED report, once again, revealed that young women achieve better educationally than boys at the age of 16 and that a higher proportion of girls than boys continue in education to degree level.
So, what can be done? According to UNESCO the biggest single indicator of whether a child is going to thrive at school and in work is whether or not they read for pleasure. The award‐winning screen writer and children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce has commented: “When my Dad took me down the park, with a flyway, he did not say, ‘Right, son, I’m going to teach you some basic ball skills, work on general fitness and spatial awareness and if you’re really good, then in a few years' time, we’ll have a game of footie.’ No, he played with me. The fact that he was having fun too was really important ... pleasure is the most powerful motivation.”Prof Colin Terrell, an educational psychologist and lecturer in psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, said in The Telegraph: “Part of the problem is that in general boys don’t like to sit down and read more than 20 pages at a time. Girls tend to have a more advanced grasp of language at this stage. If you have a 13 year-old who won’t read then sit him down with the sports section of a tabloid. It’s more important to get their reading level up than to try and get them to read great literature.”
Earlier this year education secretary, Michael Gove said all schools should “raise the bar” by asking pupils to read large numbers of whole books at the end of primary school and throughout secondary education. Mr. Gove was shocked by the publication of a report in December showing that reading standards among British teenagers had slumped from 17th to 25th in a major international league table. In response to this Mr. Gove asked leading children’s authors to set out the 50 books each child should read over the course of a year.
Following Mr Gove’s “50 book challenge” The Independent newspaper set a challenge of their own among a selection of authors to come up with their list of 50 books for children. Michael Rosen went for the Beano Annual which he described as “A cornucopia of nutty, bad, silly ideas, tricks, situations and plots”.
In the Pearson Education research report, boys themselves admitted to being put off by long books. More than 200 boys were questioned on their reading habits, and one in five admitted that they preferred shorter books. The same proportion said they thought reading was “for girls”.
So what does this mean for families? Certainly we need to inspire and enthuse our children, and do what it takes to get boys fired up about reading, but what about the question of single sex schools? Much has been written this year on the benefits or otherwise of all-girl schools but could the lessons learnt in single-sex boys schools be part of the answer?
The Pearson study revealed that one of the major de-motivating influences in boys reading was that it did not appear “cool or hip” amongst their friends. Last year, a poll conducted by the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) found that a growing number of parents are opting for boys-only private primary schools, reversing a five-year trend towards teaching boys and girls together.
David Hanson, chief executive of the IAPS, said that "In an all-boy environment [boys can] be fully-rounded rather than half a boy in some other environment where you have to pretend to be tough or not want to learn because it is cool to be a fool."
It seems parents are attracted to prep schools because they employ more male teachers than state schools. Figures published by the General Teaching Council show that 28% of state primary schools in England have no male teachers. An Independent Schools Council study published last year found 29% of lessons in prep schools were taught by men, compared with 12% in state primary schools.
So, yes - students need inspiration and exciting reading materials that can get them excited about reading again. But surely they also need men. More needs to be done to engage boys' and build on their own interests, but as Frank Cottrell Boyce carefully reminds us, “Pleasure can’t be taught. Pleasure can only be shared”.