Conference to look at boys’ under-achievement, 03 May 2007

Pete Henshaw

The under-achievement of boys at school has perplexed the education world for years.

In March this year education secretary Alan Johnson called for a “boys’ bookshelf” in every secondary school library to encourage boys to read more, while last month Oxford academic Professor Ann Buchanan blamed the government’s failure to instil a sports culture in schools for the educational under-achievement of boys.

Now MA Education, the publisher of SecEd, is adding its weight to the debate by holding a conference on the issue.Entitled “Educating boys: triumph not trouble”, the two-day conference will examine the many theories behind the problem of boys lagging behind girls at school and offer a range of practical strategies.

The conference, to be held at London’s City University on June 4 and 5, will be chaired by childcare expert and author Karen Sullivan. It will also feature leading figures in education, including Graham Able, master of Dulwich College, education consultant and author Gary Wilson, and Dr Cheron Byfield, director of the National Black Boys Can Association. Dr Carolyn Jackson, a senior lecturer from Lancaster University’s department of educational research, will discuss “laddish” behaviour at school while Ryan Robson, chairman of the Educational Failure Working Group, part of the Conservatives’ Social Justice Policy Group, will make a keynote speech.

Dr Blye Frank, the distinguished director of medical education at Canada’s Dalhousie University, will talk about recent research in the field and also look at the health concerns of boys and young men. “The investigation of boys’ and girls’ achievement in schools is a very important issue,” Dr Frank told SecEd. “But in exploring the concern in the population of boys and young men, it is critical to remember that boys are not all the same and that gender intersects with a number of other factors – class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, culture and so on. “A shift to asking which boys are under-achieving will provide educators with a much better picture of boys’ achievement and allow for the development of appropriate policy and for the implementation of strategies and programmes to meet the needs of boys.”

For details of the conference, email

Tough targets help boys to do better

Sunday Telegraph, 07/05/2007

By Julie Henry, Education Correspondent,

A tough mentoring scheme, which encourages boys to compete for good grades at school, is producing a dramatic improvement in results.

Assertive mentoring, where pupils are made to focus in monthly meetings on the marks they should be getting and the practical means of achieving them, is banishing the anti-learning culture that has developed in some schools, particularly among boys.

The approach, pioneered at Hurworth School in Darlington, which has seen its five A* to C GCSE score soar from 38 per cent in 1998 to 92 per cent in 2006 is being adopted by other secondaries. The gender gap in the school's results of 12 per cent has been eradicated.

The method has the backing of academics at Cambridge University who said its ability to motivate disengaged boys and improve achievement was "transforming".

Mike Younger, the director of teaching at the university's education faculty, who will outline the approach at conferences later this month, said: "Where heads and staff are fully behind assertive mentoring and pupils have bought in to it, it has had a big impact. It can create a context where students, particularly boys, have the confidence to talk to teachers and each other about their work.

"At Hurworth, it gained credibility because mentors - senior members of staff - would negotiate with the class teacher on behalf of the pupil. One of the main aspects of assertive mentoring is that it makes big demands on students.
It sets them significant challenges. A pupil can justify working because his mentor is challenging him. Several of his mates who are also being mentored are in the same position. In that way, students can protect their self-image and work at the same time."

The underachievement of boys has become a big issue in schools. Last year's GCSE results showed that just 58 per cent of boys achieved five good GCSEs, compared with 66 per cent of girls. At A-level, girls outperform boys at grade A in every main subject, apart from languages.

Schools have put in place myriad measures to address the achievement gap, from single-sex classes to boy-friendly teaching methods. Hundreds of schools have also introduced one-to-one mentoring, with limited success.

According to Eamonn Farrar, the former headmaster and now chief executive of Hurworth School, most mentoring approaches are too "soft".

"A pupil comes in and the mentor asks, 'How are things going?' The question shows the mentor doesn't have a clue about them. Children bluff their way though. The pupil might promise to 'work harder'. It is easy to say, everyone feels good afterwards and the commitment lasts as long as it takes for the kid to walk to his next class."

At Hurworth, mentoring focuses relentlessly on grades. Each month, every 14-year-old has a half-hour session with Mr Farrar, the headmaster Dean Judson or other senior staff, in which the child's performance is analysed. If progress is slow, "a deal" is agreed to improve performance.

The "hard" mentoring has led to an environment where pupils compete with each other academically.

"By keeping the pressure up on the whole year group, we give them a way of opting out of laddish behaviour and enjoying positive competition," said Mr Farrar.

Matthew Smith, 16, is among those who have benefited. At the start of his GCSE courses, he was well behind in every subject. However, his attitude was transformed in mentoring sessions with Mr Judson who took Matthew out of class and taught him maths himself. The pupil is now in line for a B in the subject.
"The mentoring meetings made me more likely to say where I needed help," Matthew said. "They also stopped my mates having a pop when I started to do well because as soon as everyone started having mentoring meetings, we were all in the same boat."

Nick Seaton, the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: "This sounds like a return to traditional teaching methods, which is what many youngsters need, particularly boys. Before 'competition' became a dirty word in education, boys would compete for good grades and drive up their scores. It brought them self-respect and good future prospects."

German Boys: Problem Children?

There's been a lot of talk recently about boys in Germany. Debates about the equality of girls and women have long ignored the fact that it is also not easy for boys in Germany to find their place in society. Particularly in school, boys do less well than girls, though education experts are unable to agree on why.

The figures speak for themselves: as far as their school careers are concerned, boys are at a disadvantage as compared to girls. Gender differences are evident even at the school entry stage: over 60 percent of children whose entry into school is postponed for a year are boys, and boys also have to repeat a year more often than their female classmates. As a result, and according to estimates based on the findings of the PISA study (of school performance in Germany), approximately 35 percent of boys in year nine (14 to 15-year-olds) are "a year or more behind", while the figure for girls is just 24 percent.

The situation for boys as regards graduation from school, however, is particularly serious. Male pupils are underrepresented at Gymnasium level (the German equivalent of the grammar school in the UK), but overrepresented at Hauptschulen (secondary modern school). According to the 2006 Education Report commissioned by the Conference of Education Ministers and the Federal Ministry of Education, 32 percent of girls left school in 2004 with the qualifications needed to enter university, yet only 24 percent of all boys passed their Abitur (equivalent to A levels in the UK). 34 percent of male pupils, but only 26 percent of female pupils, graduated from a Hauptschule. It is also boys who are most likely to leave the Hauptschule without any qualifications: in 2004, 10 percent of boys were in this group, while the figure for girls was six percent.

The differences between the genders can also be observed in pupils from immigrant families. The PISA study had already highlighted that this group is particularly disadvantaged, and the latest Education Report confirms this assessment. According to the report, boys once again achieved noticeably poorer results than girls. "However, since young people from immigrant families perform less well in overall terms, the achievements of boys in this group are particularly worrying", says Petra Stanat from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. In figures, this means, for example, that twice as many non-German pupils leave school without any qualifications. At 20 percent of a school year, this proportion is particularly high in the case of non-German boys.

Linguistic abilities differ

It is simply a fact that boys, particularly those from immigrant families, are the underdogs in the German education system. There are various explanations as to why this might be the case, and one point on which educational researchers do largely agree is that boys do less well than girls on account of their poorer linguistic abilities. The PISA studies indicate that girls perform significantly better in this area. What is more, boys are far less enthusiastic and active readers than girls. Compared with the OECD average, a much higher proportion of boys in Germany say that they do not like reading and would hardly read for pleasure. The results of mediation analyses show that the head-start girls have in reading is at least partly the result of motivational factors (an interest or pleasure in reading). However, someone who is poor at reading and writing is very unlikely to be recommended for or indeed cope with the Gymnasium or Realschule. Much more than maths and science skills, an ability to express oneself and read and write fluently are the sort of core qualifications which determine which school a pupil will attend after leaving primary school.

Besides their poorer linguistic abilities, other factors which might explain why boys fare less well at school are being considered. Heike Diefenbach and Michael Klein, for example, point in their study Bringing boys back in to a correlation between the overrepresentation of women in the teaching profession and the poorer performance of boys. Female teachers, they claim, are likely to value the behaviour of boys and girls differently. "Female teachers dominate the school culture and possibly expect and reward the type of behaviour that girls are taught as part of their socialization process, and boys are not (to the same extent). In contrast, behavioural patterns which disrupt lessons and presumably also have a negative effect on performance in school are more commonly found in boys than girls, and female teachers may perhaps find this behaviour more annoying than male teachers if they are basing their standards on their own gender-specific socialization", write Diefenbach and Klein.

Research is still in its infancy

> Waltraud Cornelißen of the German Youth Institute in Munich also suggests considering the importance of images of masculinity defined at the cultural level, and perhaps even at the local or sub cultural level, as an explanation for the failure of boys in school. After all, studies into different local pupil cultures found that their images of masculinity were more or less incompatible with school requirements. "It is conceivable", says Cornelißen, "that the key images communicated to boys nowadays through the media and in their peer groups groom some boys in 'coolness', 'toughness', technical capabilities, dominant behaviour and self-confidence to a much greater extent than is beneficial for an appropriate level of work discipline, a wide-ranging interest in different subjects and a willingness to recognize teaching staff as experts and persons in authority." Furthermore, problems with the feminization in the teaching profession could then arise if a latent sexism were also associated with the images of masculinity.

Research into the reasons for boys performing less well in school is still fairly much in its infancy. At the same time, it is important not to ignore the fact that there are still problem groups among female pupils, too. For, as Stanat and Kunter say at the end of their study entitled Skills Acquisition, Educational Participation and Schooling of Girls and Boys in an Inter-State Comparison, "the reason for differences in performance lie ultimately in the effectiveness of individual encouragement and the balancing out of the strengths and weaknesses of girls and boys in the classroom". After all, statistics say nothing about the individual, and this is true of both boys and girls. Antonia Loick works as an editor and publicist in Cologne.