Boys take up books to narrow the gender gap
Wide disparities between boys' and girls' performance in English at key stage 2 has caused mounting concern in recent years, with boys falling behind in the Government's drive to bring 80 per cent of 11-year-olds up to acceptable literacy standards by 2002.
Last year, only 56 per cent of boys made the grade in English, while 73 per cent of girls reached the required level.
But the TES survey of the provisional statistics of 42 local authorities suggests that this year's 5 percentage point rise in the overall number of 11-year-olds reaching level 4 hides a dramatic improvement by boys.
Although boys still trailed the girls by an average of 10.7 points, the gap had narrowed from 16.2 percentage points the previous year.
And although the boys are still about 15 points shy of the target, they are improving at more than three times the rate of the girls.
The sexes remained roughly equal in maths and science, with the girls narrowing the slight lead of the boys.
The gender gap in literacy hit the headlines last year when ministers became alarmed that the boys' failure to keep up in English would stop them achieving the Government's ambitious targets.
Education Secretary David Blunkett called for more "boy- friendly" books - including adventure yarns, science fiction and non-fiction - to be included in the curriculum. And Stephen Byers, then school standards minister, provoked controversy by blaming the high proportion of women teachers as one reason for boys' under-performance.
However, a startling improvement in the situation in some local authorities has raised hope that the problem is being solved.
The Isle of Wight, which had the widest gender gap in last year's English results - a 26-point difference - has seen the number of boys reaching level 4 surge from 48 per cent to 65 per cent, only 4 points behind the girls.
In St Helens on Merseyside, the gap fell 18 percentage points to 7 per cent, with boys improving from a 58 per cent level 4 pass rate to 69 per cent, 1 point short of the national average. Rural North Somerset cut its gender deficit from 19 to 8 percentage points.
Daphne Denaro, an inspector with the Isle of Wight Council, said the literacy hour appeared to have had a positive effect. "In the case of boys, very focused and directed teaching with known targets is something we all know they respond to well," she said.
Government money for Year 6 booster classes, aimed at children who were borderline level 4, may also have helped by providing clear objectives for those boys who were well below the expected standard. The English tests taken in June also seemed to be more boy-friendly, with a greater emphasis on non-fiction texts.
Dr Elaine Millard, director of the literacy research centre at Sheffield University, said: "I think there is good news here, but there is a lot of work to be done. It took 10 years to get girls' achievement at GCSEs up to that of boys."
While there have been significant improvements in reading standards, writing skills among boys and girls continue to lag.