Over the last few years it’s become common to think that education is in a constant period of change and yet one thing remains stubbornly consistent – the gap between boys’ and girls’ performance in literacy. As we at ‘Ty Dysgu Towers’ pore over the data every summer and reflect on our regional successes, we can guarantee that one thing will remain the same – at every performance measure, from Foundation Phase to GCSE, girls will perform better in literacy than boys across our region. And this is the story not just in our region but in all the regions across Wales.
This focus on the ‘gender gap’ can sometimes obscure the fact that boys’ performance in literacy has improved over recent years. The only ‘problem’ is that so has the performance of girls and so the gap persists and everyone in the system at school, local authority, regional and national level continues to strive for the answers to the question – how can we improve boys’ performance in literacy and close this gender gap?
Over the years as an ‘English advisory teacher’ I have worked with a number of schools on attempting to find solutions to this problem. We have examined the latest research and looked at other schools’ practice to identify strategies that work and put them into practice. We have stocked reading corners with ‘boy friendly’ reading material; devised reading incentive schemes to appeal to boys; given boys ‘real’ audience and purpose for their writing; rethought lesson structures to appeal to boys’ learning styles; given boys opportunities to talk through their ideas before committing to paper; found positive male role models to appeal to boys; revamped topics so that they appeal to boys. Think you know a way to improve boys’ literacy? You name it; we’ve done it (and most with some success.)
Recently however I have found myself reflecting on what impact this constant focus on boys’ literacy may be having on the girls. What is it like to be a girl and find that (if, for example, your school has purchased a very popular learning project scheme) your ‘boy friendly’ topics for the year may be:
- 999 Emergency
- Bones, Bits and Gory Bits
- Disaster Zone
- Flight Engineers
- Robot Rampage and
- Gods and Gladiators
What did girls in year 4 and 5 think last year when they opened the National Reading Test paper and found that the test had two factual texts about bicycles and castles and a fictional extract from a story with a boy narrator spotting a UFO? I wonder who those texts were designed to appeal to?
The reason for my reflection was prompted by the publication of the latest PISA report at the end of last year. Amid all the negative headlines about Wales’ relatively poor performance, a little positive crumb of comfort was overlooked. In the reading tests, the gap between the performance of boys and girls in Wales was the lowest of all countries. As I read this I thought to myself, “Can this be true? Don’t say that PISA has actually given us something to celebrate at last?” Well, of course not, that would be ridiculous! The gender gap was the lowest because, whereas boys in Wales were broadly reading at a similar level to boys in other countries, girls in Wales were lagging behind their international counterparts. So we’ve succeeded in ‘closing the gap’, but unfortunately it’s been achieved through the fact that our girls are not reading as well as girls in other countries.
As the PISA report states, “although Welsh boys may be worse readers than Welsh girls in an absolute sense, the comparatively low reading skills of Welsh girls stand out as a particular challenge facing Wales.” Is it a challenge that we are facing up to?