Welsh under-21 Rhys Williams has been making conversions at a Swansea primary, reports Biddy Passmore
A WELSH rugby player who proved to pupils that he liked reading as well as sport has produced a "terrific" improvement in reading scores at a Swansea primary school.
Every Friday for two terms, Rhys Williams, a member of the Welsh under-21 squad, would turn up at Pengelli primary school to teach pupils rugby skills.
Then he would talk to a group of them about books, showing them what he was reading that week.
"Both boys and girls hero-worshipped him," said Tony Martin, headteacher of the school.
Mr Williams's visits had put a stop to the "I can read - why bother to carry on?" attitude of the older boys. Combined with a "reading buddies" scheme, where good and bad readers work in pairs, and greater use of information technology, the visits had led to a "terrific improvement for everybody".
This use of positive role models is likely to become more widespread in Wales as schools strive to halve the achievement gap between boys and girls within three years.
The gap was described in a new report from the School of Education at Cardiff University published last week.
Led by Alan Evans, formerly education officer of the National Union of Teachers, the project involved 29 primary and secondary schools in the former mining villages and rural communities in south-west Wales. They were exploring ways of countering the attitude that it is not cool to work at school.
Others included buying new books that would appeal especially to boys - the Goosebumps and Horrible Histories series, for instance, rather than the traditional texts that are still the only diet in many cash-strapped schools - and seating the children in boy and girl pairs.
Progress was measured by improvements in National Foundation for Educational Research-Nelson reading scores. Overall, both primary and secondary pupils showed a statistically significant improvement, with girls often gaining at a faster rate than boys.
Some primary schools saw a dramatic improvement in their overall scores, while a few registered little or no improvement. At secondary level, boys and girls in most schools made considerable progress.
In 1997, the last year for which separate figures for the sexes are available, 49 per cent of girls achieved five or more A-C grades at GCSE, compared with only 39 per cent of boys. In English and Welsh, boys lagged almost 20 percentage points behind the girls.
The difficulty with meeting the target set by Peter Hain, Welsh education minister, is that any strategy that improves boys' performance tends to improve girls' performance even more.