A Strong Voice for Croydon Central - Gavin Barwell MP
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Launch of Commission on Boys' Reading
24/04/2012 13:08:00


The All Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy, which I chair, supported by the excellent National Literacy Trust has launched a Commission on Boys' Reading and this morning we reviewed the available data before deciding who we want to take oral evidence from.

The evidence paints a pretty depressing picture. Boys fall behind girls at an early age and the gap widens as they go through school. At 7, the gap between boys and girls reaching the expected level in reading is 7 percentage points; at 11 it’s 9 percentage points; at 14 the gap in English tests is 12 percentage points; and at GCSE it has grown to 14 percentage points.

But it is not just an attainment issue. Girls enjoy reading more, they do it more often and the gap is widening.

This is not a recent phenomenon nor is it a uniquely British one. So what can be done about it? The research points at three areas that are worthy of further investigation.

First, pedagogy - how we teach. Schools are creating their own solutions but there is evidence about which approaches are likely to be most successful in the classroom.

Second, the home environment and in particular male role models. Alarmingly, the number of fathers who encourage their sons to read or act as a role model by reading themselves is declining.

And third, cultural issues. Boys are less likely to be given a book as a present and less likely to be taken to a library. They have less positive attitudes to reading and often can’t find things to read that interest them.

As a father of three young boys, I am passionately interested in these issues and look forward to hearing evidence from a range of experts before we decide on our recommendations to Government.

Comment on this blog


Readers' Comments

On 03/05/2012 14:16:00 Damien Conrad wrote:
This sounds great, as do Michael Gove's words on education, illiteracy and social mobility. The problem is that local government policy and deeds contradict all the words coming out of Westminster.

By cutting libraries and their funding you are effectively endorsing worsening outcomes in life for residents and particularly for the youth who are becoming more and more disenfranchised.

The problem lies not in the need to cut costs but in the way they are being cut. Take Croydon Council who are trying to cut the funding for Upper Norwood Library. This library is unique and the original Big Society library, having been run independently for all of its 112 years. It runs at half the price of most other libraries, boasts 44% of the local inhabitants as active members and runs an incredible array of services. This library should be a blueprint for all libraries yet is being cut as Croydon push towards outsourcing at a prorata-ed cost that you can guarantee will be higher than Upper Norwood Library’s.

These moves will eliminate the last community facility at Crystal Palace and will increase illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, health issues and worsen education and the future prospects of thousands of inhabitants, as people will be unable to spend 1 hour travelling the 7 mile round trip to the nearest other library.

On 04/05/2012 00:23:00 Jim wrote:
Never could get on with books at school. I found fiction boring and pointless (and still do, 30 years later). I scraped English Literature at O-level and resented having to do it at all. I never did finish reading Macbeth which I was supposed to learn for the exam. For a while it served very well as a door-wedge.

I would have been even more annoyed if some well-meaning type tried to "inspire" me. As for books as presents - I still remember the disappointment at Christmas when feeling a book through its wrapping paper. £1 book tokens were traded with other family members for 50p to 90p hard cash.

Now don't get me wrong. Kids should know how to read and it's no surprise UK schools fail in this department just as they fail in so many others. It's just a discipline matter. Look at the Chinese - their kids learn to read and write all those characters.

If boys are "falling behind" girls, then presumably it's because girls are wasting more time reading soppy fiction. I still remember the first book I bought. It was "Programming the 6502" by Rodnay Zaks. A great read - I read it from cover to cover. No doubt girls are falling behind boys when it comes to reading "proper" material.

As for fictional books, I do hope the government will consider putting 20% VAT on this form of indulgence. After all, there's VAT on door wedges and we have trillion quid debt to repay.

On 05/05/2012 21:59:00 Lou Garrett wrote:
Hi Gavin

I called and left a message yesterday... v keen to hear more about your passion for literacy. As Damian Conrad points out, haven't heard much from you on the round of library cuts Croydon Council is making. I'm a supporter (and journalist/PR professional) of Upper Norwood Library and outraged that Croydon Council wants to halt its £200k funding to the library. A pitiful sum compared to the £450m redevelopment costs taking place to central Croydon. Crystal Palace is though I guess on the periphery - out of sight, out of mind. We have so many children supporting our campaign - boys too - not just because of their parents - they are genuinely upset at the thought their cherished library could close. Many of them attended the council's budget meeting but perhaps you didnt hear from Cllr Sara Bashford - your adviser - who is making all these library cuts did she tell you? As for role models - how about you and Croydon Council step up to the table?!

On 07/05/2012 19:43:00 Deirdre Mahon wrote:
Whilst it isn't good that initiatives such as yours are needed, it is good to see them tackling real issues.

I appreciate that this is your initiative but as MP for Croydon Central, it seems at odds with Croydon's overall position regarding libraries. I'd be very keen to hear how Croydon intends to tackle illiteracy and what role libraries will play in this. Whilst libraries are only a part of the illiteracy jigsaw, they are a vital part not least because they provide an alternative to school and home learning which not all children benefit from. Of course, this isn't just about children; there are just as high levels of illiteracy in adults. Where do these people go to get support if their library has been closed? Who helps them fill in their job applications and provides reading and writing support? At present, much of this is provided by volunteers in libraries...

Lastly, I'm interested that Sara Bashford is part of this initiative. I would have thought this to be a rather strange choice of colleague given Cllr Bashford's apparent lack of regard for some of the communities she is paid to serve. Take for example, the Upper Norwood Joint Library (which is under threat of closure because Croydon is withdrawing funding) - a highly cost efficient and extremely well used library/community hub. Cllr Bashford's handling of the community and its best asset has been woeful and, worse than this, has shown a total disregard for decent people. I would suggest that Cllr Bashford would be better suited to dealing with 'hard nosed' issues where no degree of empathy or human emotion is required. The only characteristic Cllr Bashford has shown to the community is to dupe them and throw metaphorical eggs in the faces of decent folk by sniggering at them at a public meeting.

I applaud your initiative but have some serious concerns about the tactics. I'd appreciate a full response.

On 09/05/2012 20:56:00 Michelle Hannell wrote:
I can't tell you how pleased I am to see that you, as a supporter of a council with disregard for the future of local children, are showing some initiative by acknowledging the importance of improving literacy levels for boys.

As a supporter and user of the Upper Norwood Joint Library I am particularly interested to see that you highlight library visits as playing an important role in improving boys' attainment and interest in reading. You say that you are a father of three young boys so you obviously know first hand how difficult it is to get boys to show consistent enthusiasm for reading. I have a boy myself and it can sometimes be very challenging to get him to read at home and school - yet he has always been enthused about visiting the library and borrowing books from it.

What a shame for you and your commission and me and my children that Sara Bashford, your assistant, has withdrawn funding for Croydon's local libraries, including the Upper Norwood Joint Library. By withdrawing a measly £200K from UNJL (an Independent and extremely efficient library) yet splashing out millions in Croydon town centre, it is beginning to seem as if Crystal Palace residents are of little importance to the council.

As a parent I ask you, despite being 'passionate' about this issue, would you travel 25 mins every week so that your boys could visit a library? Would you really?

With these points in mind, I ask you: have you really considered what your colleague is doing and how hypocritical it is that she is working for you yet undermining your Commission? And secondly, are Croydon Council, considering the efficiency of the UNJL, being fair to all the boys (and girls) of Crystal Palace who will not be able to benefit from your Commission?

Come on Mr Barwell, you can really MAKE A DIFFERENCE here by standing up to your colleagues. You say you have the 'passion' - well now it's time to put that passion into action and help SAVE THE UNJL.

I look forward to hearing from you.

PS: Don’t take my word for it. I hereby offer you a personal invitation – my children and I will take you on a special, guided tour of the UNJL. You will be able to use this trip as evidence towards your Commission and also as a chance to see how £200K can be well spent.

On 10/05/2012 11:29:00 Bryher Scudamore wrote:
If you really do care about literacy please help us keep our precious library open and speak to your aide Sara Bashford and tell her to support Upper Norwood library and tell her not to snigger in a council meeting when questions are being asked by concerned residents who don't want the council to close this well-used and well-run library.

If you would get behind our campaign then your actions would match your words. Our library could be a model for others in Croydon and in the whole country. With our management all the libraries could be properly funded and still save money.

PLEASE speak to Sara and get her to restore our desperately needed funding so the children who are learning to read and enjoying the library can continue to do so. Croydon Council is holding a public meeting about the closure of Upper Norwood Joint Library on May 16. It would be terrific if you would attend and explain to Croydon Council just how important libraries are to literacy - a thing you say you are passionately interested in.

On 14/05/2012 20:25:00 Margaret wrote:
The statistics behind this seemingly progressive failure actually show the opposite.

Students (especially boys) did not cope well with whole word reading tuition, so older ones (who grew up under that system) are still suffering from the effects of that failure. Our newest boys and girls are learning to read with synthetic phonics which, on the whole, suit a bigger proportion of the population of young learners.

I am a parent and special needs teacher whose sons suffered mightily under whole word reading schemes but now read avidly (even some fiction - and of course, sci fi comics!). My pet hate, as a mathematician, is people who misquote stats to justify more picking on teachers.

Please be sure that the history of new reading tuition has been factored into your successive failure stats. If they are still so negative after that, I would be very interested to know!

On 15/05/2012 10:33:00 Gavin Barwell wrote:
A number of people have commented about the future of Upper Norwood Joint Library. I am reluctant to get involved in an issue that doesn't affect my constituents other than to reaffirm my view that libraries are important and to observe that, while I can entirely understand residents in that part of the borough not wanting to lose their library, I never understood when I was responsible for Croydon Council's finances why Upper Norwood had its own library authority (which means the person running the library gets paid the salary of a Chief Librarian!) rather than a branch library like Shirley or New Addington.


I think it is an undeniable fact that you will have more success teaching kids to do something if you can make it enjoyable.


The data I quoted is the most recent available. I agree that synthetic phonics is preferable to whole word learning but I don't think, given the various cultural factors, it is the answer to the gender gap on its own.

On 16/05/2012 15:18:00 Robert Gibson wrote:
The Upper Norwood Joint Library was set up 112 years ago by the true Big Society visionaries as an independent jointly funded library with Lambeth and Croydon working together to serve the entire community of Crystal Palace to which it is very accountable. The UNJL has been independently shown to be more cost effective than other Croydon or indeed Lambeth libraries. I would have thought it would be a perfect model for you to espouse to save other libraries under threat as part of your campaign against illiteracy.

Overpaid central management imposes huge unnecessary costs which grant funded independence avoids. The Government wants Doctors to run hospitals. Shouldn’t the argument follow the best people to run local libraries are local librarians?

The person running the Upper Norwood Joint Library is a chief librarian which means we get a proper professional service while many branch libraries are run by distant dictat by unaccountable managers. I would have thought you would have been in favour of localism?

However our chief librarian is not paid anywhere near the inflated salaries of typical heads of local authority departments. And how is this self-sacrifice rewarded? By Croydon unilaterally seizing control without regard to the existing agreement and its arbitration provisions, Lambeth or the local community.

On behalf of the campaign and our local community and to assist in your campaign against illiteracy we would implore you to meet with us. The Upper Norwood Joint Library is thriving and growing and can be a template for best practice. Don’t let it whither on the vine. It speaks to many of the best intentions of David Cameron and the coalition Government. Lets work together to get a successful outcome we can all be proud of.

On 17/05/2012 08:32:00 Margaret wrote:
Thank you for your reply.

As far as the pedagogy goes, we still have hurdles to boys' learning increasingly built into the post-O level / CSE amalgamation.

Up until this point, everyone was worried about girls' failure to match boys' attainment. So we changed over to less discussions and more writing in class, which generally suits girls better. So boys, who are often more social learners, find increasingly that in order to 'evidence' having read the set books, they have to write essays instead of discuss what they have read. As a generally 'boy-brained' learner in this respect, although not in many others, I have every sympathy with students who would rather only write when it is called for, rather than throughout most if every lesson.

Good luck rearranging the inspection system so that teachers are allowed to spend time in secondary classes in stimulating group discussion, when this leaves no written evidence in an exercise book that can be checked against the teacher's assessment records.

To address the current gender gap without just reversing it back to the way it was before, when boys bought sci-fi and girls wouldn't read, is a very tall order. I personally cannot see it hapenjng without variable assessment in place of one sole GCSE style for all. Are we far enough removed from CSEs now to allow optional coursework, optional oral exams and optional final exam only assessment of the same subject, so that we can actually determine what young people KNOW, not just how well the current assessment style suits them?

I wish you all the best in this, but do bear in mind that the current situation was almost exactly reversed before GCSEs, regardless of home environment.

A lot more 'putting off' of students goes on in the name of OFSTED than in the name of being like Dad!




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