Boys at school: Long climb back to the top

[The Independent, 27 July 2006]

Experts have been wringing their hands at the underachievement of boys. But now a group of schools in Yorkshire is showing the world how to kick-start their enthusiasm for learning.

Hilary Wilce reports

Boys don't do well in school. They work less hard than girls, act up in class, and fall down in exams. Their underperformance hampers their life chances and blights society - disaffected youths are the main perpetrators of violence and anti-social behaviour. Yet to many teachers and parents their failure is an enigma. What can you do, they shrug. They're boys.

The answer is: a lot. And fast. In fact, a city-wide project is proving that we already know exactly what to do to get boys going. And when it is done, results show up almost immediately.

Eighteen months ago a group of Bradford schools set out to raise boys' school marks, behaviour and aspirations. A pilot group of 22 primary schools began the work, and 18 of them improved boys' attainments within the year, with 13 seeing an average increase of 5 per cent in literacy and 10 per cent in numeracy in national test scores.

Teachers are also seeing a real turnaround in boys' attitudes, and boys are reporting changes. "I feel a lot better about everything," says Grant Steel, 14, whose secondary school is one of the nearly half of all Bradford schools now involved in the project. "I'm much more positive about what I can do now."
A number of separate actions are fuelling the change, but behind them all is the realisation that many of the things that motivate boys have been stripped out of schools with recent reforms. Girls have stoically adapted to the changes, but boys have often lost the plot.

"Over the past 15 years school has become a more narrow and drier kind of affair for some pupils," says Chris Ford, director of the city's Excellence in Cities Action Zone, which is running the project. "The pressure is all on literacy and numeracy. There is less time for a broader curriculum. But if you have a rich curriculum, hands-on learning, a rich life beyond class, and behaviour policies that are firm and plain, then boys and girls achieve equally."

There are, he says, about a dozen small things schools can do, "but when you have got them all going on, the overall culture of the schools shifts and you see reactions very, very quickly, usually within a couple of terms."

Boys tend to have high energy levels and need active lessons and lively sports programmes. They like to be given good reasons for doing things, enjoy practical tasks and often prefer non-fiction reading. They are uncomfortable with feelings, can find it hard to express themselves, and need people to understand that underneath their rowdy behaviour can lurk very low self-confidence.

However, give them firm behaviour boundaries, clearly structured work, and a sense of respect and attention, and they not only flourish, but relish the feeling of belonging to an institution they are proud of. "Once a school gets boys on board, they become really strong ambassadors," says Chris Ford. "They are proud to wear the shirt."

The project is training teachers to be more aware of these needs and encouraging schools to draw up action plans. But there is no magic template. What schools do varies according to their circumstances.

The project has brought in expert tutors, such as Gary Wilson, an education consultant who has spent years supporting boys' achievement as an adviser in Kirklees, and has encouraged teachers to think about how to develop boys' reading, writing, and emotional literacy.

However, Ford stresses that boys are not "a problem", nor do they all fit the stereotype. The Bradford work addresses broad tendencies, and the things it advocates are good for girls, too. "What this is all about is offering differentiated provision according to the learning needs of pupils. I would like to see it as a normal part of any school's development plan."

At Shirley Manor Primary School, learning is visibly lively and active. Nursery children - girls as well as boys - climb trees and hang from branches. In the adjoining playground, older children are enthusiastically acting out being Viking berserkers, while Year 5 children are using digital cameras to make their own cartoons. Staff have been trained to think about how to communicate better with boys. "You need to use far more empathy and get their full attention. For example, you might crouch down and say, 'I understand you're upset...' and talk it through, and then say 'So do you think it might be a good idea to say sorry?'," explains assistant head Tracy Annal. When it comes to developing literacy, "Boys have to have a reason for what they are doing, and you have to do it in a practical way."

Behaviour policies are firm and fair, team spirit is fostered, and an awards system gives children merits for doing well. Boys are also encouraged to be playground mentors, helping children who are feeling lonely or who are bullied.
"I became a mentor because I'd been bullied," says Thomas Ramsay, 10. "I like helping other people and it helps if you know what children feel like when it's happening to them."

Teachers say much of their training highlighted what they already knew, but making it more explicit has brought results - the school's national test benchmark English results went up by 2 per cent in 2005, and maths results went up by 6 per cent. Gillian Wilson, a Year 5 teacher, says that as a result of the project she has "changed it all, thrown it all out" and brought in more drama and role play to her lessons, changed her choice of books, and found new ways to teach literacy. "This has really developed me as a teacher, and hooked in the boys. Their creative writing is fantastic now!"

Across the city at Salt Grammar School, teachers have been trained in boy-friendly methods and resources, and are seeing test scores go up, although deputy head teacher IanMorrel stresses the importance of making changes subtle and low-profile.

Boys tend to like clear, multipart lessons where they know what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. They prefer active learning and practical tasks to reading and writing, and can be drawn out by direct questioning.
"Boys don't put up their hands in class," points out Morrel. "They tend to think, 'Oh, she's going to answer, so there's no point thinking about it.' But if they know they might be picked, they have to think it through.''

At GCSE, where boys can flounder in the face of large pieces of coursework, teachers now know to "chunk it down" by spelling out clearly what has to be done and encouraging pupils to focus on one thing at a time.

Boys' literacy has been developed through daily quiet reading, increasing the number of boy-friendly library books and library lessons. Librarian Jean Luxford often finds herself buying requested books on sports or motorbikes. "We often have twice as many boys in the library as girls. They have their heads down and are reading!"

The school is supporting capable but underachieving younger pupils. Borderline pupils in years 9, 10 and 11 have been given study support and a programme of activities and visits. They have learnt the importance of evaluating and redrafting work, and taught different methods for revision.

Sixth-formers act as mentors, and the success has been clear. This year almost all the Year 9 pupils hit their maths and science target level, and 61 per cent got one or two grades higher in maths than expected.

Ben Priestley, 13, was "well chuffed" that his results exceeded expectations, and says his geography teacher expects an A* from him at GCSE! "The group wasn't for people who were thick or naughty, just those who needed a bit of oomph putting into them. I knew I could do it. I just didn't know how to express it.
"We did a lot of group work and a lot about how to learn, and about people skills and how to talk to people. I'm a lot more confident now. We were taken to see Imran Khan, and I stood up in front of 500 people and asked a question! I just feel a lot better about everything. Everyone should have this sort of thing."
Mentor Tom Hickey, 17, says he volunteered because he remembers being in the same position at their age and not getting help. "My role in the group was just to answer questions and help them through. But it's helped my skills, too. I'm thinking of being a social worker. And it really works. I'd recommend it to anyone."

Eighteen secondary schools and 59 primary schools are now involved in the project, and their work is beginning to attract widespread interest.
"We have consistent data across all schools. Last year's Sats results were encouraging, and we're getting lots of reports of a calmer atmosphere and of changes in individual behaviour," says Chris Ford. "We're not surprised by what has happened, but we are a bit surprised by the speed of it." What needs to be done now, he says, is to consolidate it and make sure it "sticks" in schools."But there's no reason to think this wouldn't work anywhere. After all, we didn't invent it. It's what Ofsted and HMI and other people have been saying for years. All we've done is to take their good advice and turn it into effective practice - but in a way that allows every school to tailor it to its own setting."