A growing moral panic surrounds the issue of boy's under-achievement. As we approach the millennium, an apocalyptic scenario of high unemployment, poor marriage prospects, rising crime and suicide is forecast for men who fail to meet the educational requirements of the "knowledge society". Education is seen as the lever for change, particularly among boys, for whom shrinking manual labour markets spell an ever more disaffected schooling.
Literacy tests at the age of seven show the earliest and largest differences between boys' and girls' attainment. This early falling behind is seen as the root of boys' under-achievement. The pressure of inspection reports from the Office for Standards in Education, as well as league tables, on schools competing in the education marketplace have led many to give priority to raising boys' literacy scores.
Elaine Millard's empirical study of boys' and girls' routes to a range of gendered literacies is welcome. She starts with the history of the literacy and English curricula, showing the deep-rooted value of narrative fiction and the appreciation of character and emotion, which appeal to girls. In contrast, boys' preference for action and adventure is constructed as a deficit model. Moral panics about male "yob" culture are always accompanied by a return to a skills-based approach to literacy, controlled by teachers.
Millard then presents her evidence about boys' and girls' choices of "narrative pleasures", gleaned from questionnaires and interviews with 11 and 12-year-olds in comprehensive schools. Reading in formal classroom contexts is considered in relation to reading at home, watching television, playing computer games and leisure reading. She shows the variety of media that compete for children's attention and the influence of parental reading patterns, where mothers are more likely than fathers to be involved in teaching children to read.
While stressing that the influence of teachers should not be overestimated, Millard questions the ways in which boys' literacies are devalued. Girls read more than boys and are interested in narrative fiction, the form most valued by teachers. Boys are more attracted to non-fiction, predominantly about football and electronic media.
Millard argues that the technical matter boys read gives access to literacies that may be more valuable in labour markets than girls' interests.
Such questions raise the issue of literacy and power in the wider society and it is a pity Millard's work ignores the significance of social class and ethnicity. We need to understand why women become secretaries, reading Catherine Cookson in their breaks from typing letters for men, whose range of other literacies enables them to control the electronic media, people and resources. Revaluing boys' literacy is a first step towards the deconstruction of "boys' under-achievement" in literacy.
Literacy studies is one of the most fascinating areas of research on gender and schooling. The most exciting critical work is from Australia and the United States rather than the United Kingdom, where the hegemony of narrative fiction has been reinforced by the national curriculum. The challenge posed by this research is to enable boys and girls to transcend the tired binaries that construct girls as passive readers and boys as educational deficits.
Christine Heward is a senior lecturer at Warwick University Institute of Education