Boys are more emotional than girls. So thinks Tony Little, the head of Eton school, who in a highly controversial interview this week, also claims that boys are being failed by a state education system which treats them the same as girls. Boys, he insists, are wired differently from girls: they are more competitive, need to be physically active and are incapable of multi-tasking. For that reason, Little argues, boys need to be taught differently, and the result of our failure to do so is a nationwide problem with disaffected teenage boys. Interestingly, the head of Britain’s most prestigious, and most expensive, single-sex school has been a passionate advocate of boys and girls being taught together, but he also believes that unless we take account of the differences between the sexes, many boys will continue to be labelled disruptive and fail to achieve their true potential.
Make of Tony Little’s comments what you will, but if we think about the issue purely in terms of reading engagement, I believe that many of our boys are failed by an inherent institutional bias. The popular misconception is that boys, generally speaking, are reluctant readers. I’m not convinced. I have a notion that the problem is more about the choice of texts than it is about the reader. It’s hardly a scientific study, but in my experience as a secondary English teacher, when given a free choice of texts, girls would normally opt for a novel, while boys more often than not would choose non-fiction texts. There were of course exceptions to the rule. The whole-class texts they studied did not reflect that balance however, consisting almost entirely of works of fiction. To compound the problem, in cash-strapped schools and departments, many of the texts were significantly outdated and often presented outdated gender stereotypes.
There was a solution to the problem. Occasionally, the common experience of a single text by a whole class is an enjoyable and worthwhile experience, but equally there is no reason why we should assume that in all circumstances a single text will be appropriate for twenty or thirty young people simply because they happen to be the same age and in the same room. A common outcome can be achieved by setting the same task for different texts. It’s more appropriate, it saves money and it proves that sometimes discrimination can be positive.