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."