I just caught the end of a discussion on BBC R4 World at One about the attainment gap – the fact that girls outperform boys in school exams and assessments. I’ve heard a lot of talk about this recently and it’s a fascinating and important subject. Yet only today did I hear one of the contributors get to the root of the problem.
The discussion mentioned literacy levels and the findings that boys (particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds) struggle with reading much more often than girls. It was agreed that fewer boys read for pleasure. Someone wisely talked about the lack of role models for young boys. “They don’t see their dads reading.” This is true and it’s one of the problems that contributes strongly to the cause of the gap.
It’s a very difficult problem to solve, of course. I have worked in many communities where books are not seen as valuable and important. In fact, in deprived areas, reading is often regarded with scorn. Many parents in these places themselves struggle with basic reading and writing skills and they don’t feel confident enough to read to their children or they don’t see the value of it.
Men from working class backgrounds, in particular, have turned away from books. Reading is not normalised for males too often, and young boys therefore don’t regard it as a useful, important or enjoyable thing to do. Meanwhile, in households where reading is valued, where parents had parents who were readers (and read to them), books are valued and children more often become readers – boys and girls. The gap develops at an early stage for many youngsters.
Schools work hard to counter this, and the number of teachers who understand the huge value of reading for pleasure and the importance of reading aloud and enthusing about books appears to be growing again, after various official educational ‘initiatives’ worked against a culture of reading for enjoyment in schools for years.
But in nurseries, infant and primary schools generally, there are far fewer men than women teaching, so male role models are in short supply there too. In addition, children who are encouraged to read at home are further encouraged to read at school and this can extend the gap further, sadly. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s simply where we are.
But what can be done? Can it be fixed? Where can we find male role models for reading, men who are enthusiastic advocates for books for boys at all ages? Well I know where they are because I am one myself. There’s a whole gang of us: male authors of children’s books.
Of course, not all men who write for children are comfortable standing in front of kids and joyfully enthusing, but many are. In fact for me it’s become something of a way of life. I’m an ex-primary teacher anyway, so working with young audiences of children, quite often from deprived backgrounds, is not daunting.
In fact, over the last 20 years of being an author, I have visited around 400 schools and worked with all kinds of kids, young and old, rich and poor, readers and disengaged. I’ve learned how to win them over. In fact, it has become my job, essentially. Like many full-time writers I’ve found that it’s basically impossible to live off earnings from book sales, even when your books are very popular, and so I must do paid events to pay my bills: festivals, talks to adults, library sessions and – most important of all – school visits.
At the moment I am only paying the bills because of government assistance for the self-employed. Covid stopped all school author visits and, like many people in the creative industries, I found myself very stuck. But schools are struggling to pay for author visits anyway, despite the fact that these events have enormous value in terms of encouraging reading.
So there we are. A government minister is on national radio acknowledging that the attainment gap between boys and girls is a significant problem, and understanding that boys not having male reading role models is a contributory factor in this. And here I am, an expert book advocate, a professional male reading role model, an experienced and effective leader of workshops to get children into books, being paid by the government to sit at home…
Is there someone with power and influence out there who can put two and two together? For a modest national investment, authors like me could be paid to go into schools and make a difference. Children in disadvantaged areas can be inspired to see books in a new light – as something fun, good and enjoyable.
As it is, the schools which can afford authors to visit and enthuse their pupils are too often the ones in more wealthy areas, the independent schools particularly, and state schools where middle class-powered PTAs do stupendous fund-raising to help pay the cost. Many boys in these schools are reading anyway. The gap widens.
I must make it clear that female authors are just as inspirational as their male counterparts and in my view should also be funded to provide school visits that boost reading for pleasure. I am friends with many women writers who are outstanding workshop leaders with young people and are also sitting at home, not being given the opportunity to make a difference.
Of course, COVID-19 is still with us and variants are going to around for some time. But as a double-jabbed author I feel safe visiting schools now. Children have also been starved of fun events like author visits. Zoom simply won’t do it.
Shall we close the gap, or just let it keep growing and sit back as today’s non-reading boys become tomorrow’s non-reading fathers?