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Real boys don't read books

Patsy Way believes literacy problems begin in families where teaching a child to read is thought of as mother's work.

I used to wonder why so little attention was paid to the discrepancy between girls' and boys' performance in literacy. Generations of girls had their scores in the 11-plus exam adjusted downwards so that an equal percentage of girls and boys would enter grammar schools. The prevailing idea was that girls developed earlier than boys.

However, as sound equal opportunities policies developed in school, the received opinion among staff was that boys and girls should not be seen as or treated differently. Discussion of difference consequently became redundant.

With characteristic force, chief inspector Chris Woodhead last year attributed the under performance of white working-class boys to several reasons, including unhelpful parental attitudes to education. This still did not seem to me to explain why it should be harder for a particular group of boys to perform well.

As an MSc research project, I undertook case studies of two families, interviewing them and the class teachers involved several times in nine months. I set out to talk to families with sons who were not showing behaviour problems in school or demonstrating emotional distress. I chose boys whose mothers had good links with the school, attending termly meetings to agree goals. Parents and teachers communicated progress weekly. Even so, these boys were having marked problems with literacy.

The interviews with the families opened new worlds to me. Tom's parents had both had difficulties with literacy and his father had dropped out of secondary school. Reading and writing began to make sense to Tom's father when he taught himself to read the sports pages. For this family, success meant staying within mainstream education and attaining functional literacy by the time you left school. Tom was pioneering new territory, having been more successful than anyone else at his age.

Graham's parents had begun their family in their teens and had struggled to establish a comfortable home for their three children. They had also struggled with literacy and Graham's mother had truanted and dropped out of secondary school, while his father had become the class clown and missed much of his education. For them, supporting their children meant ensuring regular and nutritious meals, clear guidelines on bedtimes and providing clean clothes. They had been brought up by single parents and thought the lack of these things had affected their educational performance. Helping with homework in this family meant watching educational programmes on television (which was how Graham's mother had educated herself). Graham's father actively supported wider interests (sport, especially football) pre-empting the release of boyish urges in more destructive ways leading to trouble with the police.

In these families, literacy was seen as essentially mothers' work because it draws on skills and abilities that girls and women were thought to be good at. These included communicating and engaging with teachers, asking questions and working diligently in more passive activities such as practising handwriting. By contrast, the boys were seen as more independent of teachers, less willing to ask questions and reluctant to engage in a task for long. They might be disruptive in class and demand more of the teacher's time but they communicated less well than girls.

Within this context, how could a boy be true to his gender role and still perform well in literacy? I imagined the boy caught in the following vicious cycle. He would work with his mother on literacy skills but find this required behaviours that were prohibited in white working-class culture, running the risk of being seen as a sissy. Performance then suffered because doing well in literacy would be equated with effeminate behaviours. He would turn to his father who would not see himself as helping with literacy but as supporting wider interests.

For example, in one interview Graham's father described how while driving him to a football match, he noticed Graham reading street signs and encouraged him. Following this, Graham's parents and teachers reported improvement in his literacy performance. His mother then resumed her role as literacy supporter with new enthusiasm but the negative cycle continued when she focused on passive skills-based activities such as handwriting which he saw as girlish. It was not that Graham's mother's activities were inappropriate but that they did not fit with his cultural understanding of how he could act as a boy.

However, the cycle was eventually broken when we began to discuss the value placed on the distinct contributions that each parent made. In addition we opened up questions about: what it meant to be a boy, the nature of parental obligations, goals and ambitions and how these fitted with school expectations. Gradually the two boys came to see that asking questions in class was not gender disloyal.

All political parties claim to place high priority on raising literacy standards but little attention has been given to parental and cultural perspectives. As a new government begins to address the task, I believe this research is important because it: * challenges a very common view that parents (and often mothers in particular) are to blame for difficulties with progress in schools; * draws on a huge resource of energies and abilities within families that is often ignored; * changes the way we often view parents. It offers a serious attempt to understand their agendas as well as the educational ones. It assumes that we all want the best for the child but accepts that we may approach the situation from very different perspectives; * invites further development in thinking about equal opportunities policies in schools to encompass discussion of plurality within gender roles; * offers a different way of thinking about why white working-class boys might perform differently from girls.

Patsy Way is a systemic family therapist and has worked as a specialist in literacy and dyslexia for over 20 years in Lambeth, Southwark and Wandsworth. She is a freelance Brief Literacy Consultant. Contact: The Brief Literacy Project, 72 Alleyn Road, Dulwich, London SE21 8AH

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