Basketball players are among a select team of famous faces signed up to help tackle boys' reluctance to read, reports Elaine Williams
The girls are goggle-eyed and the boys are beaming, struck down with a serious bout of hero-worship. This is the Year 9 assembly to die for. A girl with a blonde pigtail turns to her friend and whispers: "That one on the right is absolutely gorgeous."
The subjects of all this adolescent adulation are Ralph Blalock and Andrew Bailey, two professional Newcastle Eagles basketball players - lithe, beautiful and glowing with health beside the January pallor of the 13-year-olds. Such sporting idols, oozing urban cool, guarantee a full house at the assembly in Hookergate, a comprehensive serving former mining villages in the bleak, hilly country south-west of Newcastle upon Tyne.
And Ralph, from the United States, and Andrew, a Londoner, are black and the pupils are all white - this is not a multicultural area.
The players' limbering-up sends ripples of excitement through the audience. When English adviser Julia Morrison calls for volunteers to play ball, boys are on their feet instantly. But the eager smiles disappear when they are told that as they bounce and throw they must name something they have read before coming to school that morning. Ms Morrison, mercifully, is not expecting a chapter of Dickens. The back of the cornflakes packet or a bus ticket will do.
Julia Morrison works for Gateshead local education authority, which has co-opted the Eagles players to promote reading by touring assemblies at all of the authority's secondary schools, including Hookergate.
The players have a simple message: we didn't read enough when we were young, but now we realise its importance for everyday life. The spin is intentional. Julia Morrison believes children can be turned off by equating reading with "heavy" literature. She wants to emphasise the importance of functional literacy and reading for fun.
Through the Eagles partnership, all Year 9 pupils in Gateshead are being encouraged to fill in "reading passports" in which they can score "baskets" for reading or writing sports reports and accessing the Eagles' website, as well as for reading books. High scores are rewarded with Eagles match tickets.
The scheme, called Get Reading, has attracted pound;10,000 of the Government's National Year of Reading money and is typical of the work going on in schools halfway through the year. It fits in with Hookergate's literacy strategy, which has been focusing on boys' under-achievement. Until recently, only one boy in three achieved five A-Cs at GCSE, compared to two out of three girls. And this year Hookergate has taken over a school in Blaydon, where boys' achievement has been as low as 15 per cent.
Hookergate English teacher Diane Taylor says the school had been looking hard at teaching styles as well as texts in the library, aiming to boost boy-appeal. "Boys are risk-takers," she says, "whereas girls tend to be more methodical in their learning styles. Boys like to read sport and horror; they also tend to believe people involved in sport don't read. We want to show that that is not the case."
Headteacher Dane Roberts says: "The kids here are in awe of achievement. With so little employment locally, they need to see success."
Julia Morrison believes the success of Get Reading rests on the players' commitment. Andrew and Ralph are keen to talk about their own experiences. Andrew describes the shock he experienced as a boy when he realised his dad's best friend couldn't read. "I just didn't want to turn out like him. It pulled me up sharp. There's a lot of time to kill on this job - when you're travelling, especially. In a round trip you can get through a lot of books." His latest discoveries are John Grisham's novels and E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.
Ralph Blalock describes himself as a magazine and newspaper man. "I get hooked on articles. Sometimes I make myself read things just to expand my vocabulary. When I was a kid, if I didn't read and study my mum would make me sit out on the side in matches."
Many sports-related projects have already been set up in the National Year of Reading, but March has been designated "sports month". Librarians and literacy advisers realise that if sportswear manufacturers can use sporting idols to sell trainers, they can try the same approach to sell reading.
In Manchester, for example, the city's public libraries attracted almost pound;7,000 of National Year of Reading cash for a poster campaign featuring players from the Storm ice-hockey and the Giants basketball teams. The "Storming Good Read" and "Tall Stories" series are being distributed to schools, takeaways and shops throughout the authority's area.
"We wanted the positive role models athletes can give," says Debbie Moody, senior librarian for Manchester libraries. "We wanted pictures of men reading to boys." Like the Eagles on Tyneside, the Giants have been keen to help. They designated one of their matches Reading Night, with concessions for library ticket holders.
Other clubs have been generous in giving support, even without NYR funding. Such projects can be mutually beneficial, attracting young fans as well as building readers. Gloucester Rugby Club is running rugby-and-reading projects in local schools; Portsmouth Football Club has produced a series of "Portsmouth Booked" posters featuring one of its players reading to his son in the stadium; leisure centres in Windsor are putting books into their bars and cr ches. Birmingham, too, is going all out to sell reading through sport. The library service is organising on-the-street reading events with local footballers and other sports personalities, pop stars and comedians. It is also running a poetry column in Birmingham City and Aston Villa's football programmes, and is asking poets who write about football to put on performances and workshops.
"We need to create powerful role models, particularly for boys," says Liz Attenborough, National Year of Reading director. "Boys aren't going to be turned on overnight because they see a picture of a footballer reading a book, but it all sows seeds."
A Save the Children report on boys' reading and fathers' involvement (TES, February 19) concludes that targeting reading by focusing on males' existing interests is crucial. Bob Beagrie, a literature development officer in Cleveland, has already taken this message to heart and has attracted NYR funds to work with disaffected 16 to 25-year-olds in Stockton and Hartlepool.
Mr Beagrie has taken his theme from the group of boxers who have signed up for his project. He has taken "cult" books into the boxing club - including John King's The Football Factory (Vintage), Neil Cross's Mr In-Between (Cape) and Jon Hotten's Unlicenced: Random Notes from Boxing's Underbelly (Mainstream). He intends to look at boxing biographies and boxing journalism with the group and encourage them to write their own monologues, dialogues and poems.
During the summer, with the help of local writers and artists, the group will set up a boxing ring in a local library to display their work, with poets performing in a slam event. Mr Beagrie says: "They're very keen. It will raise the profile of boxing and counter the group's stereotypical images of reading and writing."