Dangerous books for boys? The literacy debate

Tuesday 11 October, 6.30pm until 8.30pm, Foyles Charing Cross, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0EB

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Academy of Ideas website.

When a survey earlier this year found many teachers had given up forcing boys to read Dickens and Austen, because ‘they turn off after the 100th page’, it was not greeted with surprise from anyone who has recently set foot inside a classroom. Recent research indicates one in 11 boys in England (19,000 each year) start secondary school with the reading skills of a seven-year-old at best, while a recent National Literacy Trust survey found nearly a quarter of boys asked found reading boring, compared to 13% of girls. Faced with warnings from experts that by age 11 it is increasingly difficult to develop this vital educational skill, there has been ever greater pressure on government to act earlier and earlier to make sure boys don’t start slipping behind for good.

Yet there is fierce debate over what can or should be done to tackle this apparent crisis. Former schools minister Jim Knight sought to encourage fathers to read more themselves to show their sons reading is an acceptable masculine pursuit; other measures have included getting more male role models in the classroom and even calls for specialised gender-based teaching methods which encourage separate ‘boy-friendly’ books, even if that means fewer classics and more comics. But if boys and girls are given different books to read, will they be trapped in literary ‘gender ghettoes’ and miss out on the chance to stretch their imaginations? Some insist it’s a risk worth taking: leading children’s novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce has warned we are facing ‘a national catastrophe’, with millions shunning reading for life unless teachers are prepared to engage boys with shorter and engaging stories rather than wasting time ‘ticking off books’. Charlie Higson, author of the hugely successful Young Bond young adult books, has declared ‘life is too short for Dickens’.

Overall, the literacy debate tends to focus on the technical aspects of literacy, testing children’s achievement in terms of ‘key skills’. But might this approach alienate young readers from the broader pleasures of engaging with literature? Or is it time to accept that getting boys to an acceptable standard of literacy is more important than boring them rigid with books they won’t understand or care about? Given that there is no shortage of male authors and critics, is the problem not in fact with boys per se, but really a certain type of poor, underachieving, working class boy? Is the problem really about books at all?

Damian Barr
writer and salonierre; creator and host, Shoreditch House Literary Salon; author, Maggie and Me

Melvin Burgess
award winning children's author, novels include Nicholas Dane, Junk and Kill All Enemies

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
educator, writer, doctoral researcher

Jonathan Douglas
director, National Literacy Trust

Lindsay Johns
writer and broadcaster; (non-residential) Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research at Harvard University

KAS Quinn
children's writer; lecturer and educationalist; author, The Queen Must Die, first part of a time-travel trilogy

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert educator, writer, doctoral researcher
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