Every secondary school should put up a separate “boys’ bookshelf” packed with spy novels and action stories to encourage more boys to read, the education secretary said today.

Alan Johnson warned that working class boys faced an increasingly bleak future as they fall behind girls in English at school.

He announced a new drive to recruit more men as primary school teachers to provide role models and said lessons should be fast, practical and factual to grab the attention of boys.

By the age of 14, boys are on average 14% behind girls in their national test results for English. Those from poor homes fair even worse.

Mr Johnson told the Fabian Society in London: “This is the worst possible start for their GCSE years, in which writing skills are so critical.

“We need an educational strategy that builds a positive identity for working class boys, instilling in them pride and a love of learning.”

Mr Johnson suggested that parents should turn the television off and read to their children instead.

And he called for a review of the way boys are taught in class.

“We know what works and what doesn’t,” he said.

“Boys do better when their attention is grabbed quickly. They like dealing with practical tasks, which make learning tangible.

“Boys also like clear rules and quick feedback. They want to get straight to the point.

“The importance of reading cannot be overstated as literacy is so important to achievement in other subjects.”

He added: “Boys like books which depict them in powerful roles, often as sporting, spying or fighting heroes – not just Jane Austen, but a necessary dose of Anthony Horowitz as well.

“To help get boys reading we need a boys’ bookshelf in every secondary school library in the country, containing positive, modern, relevant role models for working class boys.”

Officials suggested the kind of books which schools should be offering to boys include titles such as Raven’s Gate, by Anthony Horowitz, The Fall, by Robert Muchamore, and Bloodtide, by Melvin Burgess.

Mr Johnson said he would be publishing “a parenting strategy” tomorrow setting out how the government can encourage parents to take more of an interest in their children’s education.

“For working class boys to succeed, they need interested parents who reward their achievements and value their success,” he said.

“Reading will be central. The average family spends four hours a day watching television.

“If they read to their children for a tenth of that time, we could practically eradicate illiteracy.”

Mr Johnson said boys faced particular difficulties when being brought up by single mothers.

He suggested that grandfathers could provide “a vital male influence in the absence of a responsible father”.

Ministers are thought to be considering providing funding to encourage grandfathers to get involved with their grandsons’ education.

Mr Johnson went on: “Our schools should contain more male role models, such as ‘old boys’ or local boys made good.”

He said 85% of primary teachers are women and while they are doing “an excellent job”, this can mean many children from single parent families “reach the age of 11 without having any significant contact with a male role model”.

The government will launch a publicity drive to attract more men to work as teachers and classroom assistants in primary schools, he said.

Mr Johnson said boys could be bullied at school because they are seen as “swots” if they show that they enjoy reading.

“Girls don’t have the same problem,” he said.

The National Union of Teachers cautioned that emphasising extra help for boys must not leave girls at a disadvantage.

Its general secretary, Steve Sinnott, said: “While encouraging boys, schools always have to be careful not to go overboard and create problems for the girls.

“To presume that spy novels are solely a boys’ area of interest is to ignore the large number of females who are pretty keen on James Bond.”

Source: Guardian Unlimited