THE striking improvement this year in 11-year-olds boys' reading scores may have more to do with spiders than the literacy hour, according to a member of the independent panel which investigated the tests.
Peter Downes, a respected former head and education consultant, believes much of the 14 percentage point increase in reading scores is due to the "boy-friendly" content of this year's reading test.
As a member of the inquiry set up by the Government into the integrity of the tests, Mr Downes says he is confident there was no political interference in the process, but the impact of gender differences on the results was not discussed.
"Teachers will tell you that boys have short concentration spans. This year the reading test was split into three different passages about spiders. The year before the reading test was an 850-word extract from a literary story and and teachers have said many boys simply never got to the end," he says.
Mr Downes accepts that the emphasis on literacy in primary schools and the extra work by teachers had an impact, but says the major factor was probably the content and format of the test.
"I think it is important that ministers do not make grandiose claims from one year's results. Results need to be interpreted with caution or it is possible that the blame for any future underperformance by boys could be placed at the door of teachers," he says.
As a member of the panel of inquiry, Mr Downes agreed with the conclusion that the 1999 test had been set according to the highest standards and that there was no evidence of intervention to "fiddle" the results in order to meet the Government's 2002 targets.
However, he says: "I was struck at that time by how different the two tests were and how much more boy-friendly the 1999 test was. I was therefore not surprised to hear that boys had done so well."
Officials in the Department for Education and Employment do not accept Mr Downes's views. They insist that the literacy hour was responsible for the improvement in boys' scores.
"The structure and format of the literacy hour fits in with boys' approach to learning," said a spokesman.
The Government's advisory body on testing, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said the 1999 test went through extensive development, including a trial involving 2,000 boys and girls. At no stage did any evidence emerge that boys found spiders more straightforward to deal with than the 1998 passages about war-time evacuation.