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Raising the Achievement of Boys

Parent Advice Sheet

The subject of raising the achievement of boys is one that is attracting a lot of attention and interest in the current educational scene. Although there has always been a gap between girl and boy achievement, especially at the 11+ where girls had to score a higher mark than boys to gain grammar school entry, it is generally accepted that the gap between achievement of boys and that of girls is widening at an alarming rate.

I will start by reviewing some of the statistics that reflect the cause of concern and some of the suggested explanations for difference, including arguments from both sides of the nature-nurture debate. Following this I will introduce some of the strategies that have been suggested to help improve achievement in boys without putting girls at a disadvantage.

At age 11, according to Geoff Hannan, an expert in the field, Boys are 11 months behind girls in oracy, 12 months behind in literacy and 6 months behind in numeracy. The pattern of achievement of girls differs from that of boys, in that although both boys and girls are represented among lowest achievers and highest achievers the distribution shows marked advantage in girls at the above average levels. The graph compares a typical sample of twenty five girls and twenty five boys reflecting typical distribution of ability levels, where 8 is the highest ability level.

At a recent conference the Devon Statistician, Robert Oxburgh, gave a snapshot of county statistics. At the baseline level, assessment shows boys achieving less than girls in all areas.

At key stage 1, prior to this conference, 85% of girls scored level 2 and above, with 30% scoring above level 3. This compares to only 72% of boys reaching level 2, with 20% scoring above level 3. Girls were on average a quarter of a level higher than boys at the KS1 SATs in English, equating to six months progress, whilst in maths there was not a statistically significant difference.

By the time of the Year 6 SATs in Key stage 2 girls are on average approaching half a level (nearly a year) ahead in English, but in Devon boys appear to gain ground on the girls in maths and science.

At key stage 3 SATs girls are on average well over a year ahead in English, with boys two months ahead in maths and four months ahead in science. Although boys are well represented in the high ability sector of maths, there are more girls reaching the average level or above than boys. Indications are that the gaps in achievement in English is widening.

A further set of statistics, not directly related to gender alone gives another interesting perspective. Boys born in September had a 30% chance of scoring level 3 at KS1 sats, whilst girls born in the same month had a 50% chance. However boys born in August, and so the youngest in the year group, had only a 10% chance of achieving level 3, and girls born in August 17%. It can be seen that there is more disadvantage in being a younger child, with less time in Reception, than just being a boy.

You will have noticed, looking at the Statistics provided concerning our own school that the national differences in boy-girl achievement are largely reflected in those figures. It should be pointed out that statistically the sample of children from one school is far too small to make accurate interpretation, but taken in the larger, county wide or national, picture they give an insight to areas in need of address.

% achieving level 2+
Reading task: Boys 72% Boys 60%
Girls 96% Girls 71%
Comprehension Boys 77%
Girls 86%
Writing Boys 79% Boys 83%
Girls 80% Girls 89%
Maths Boys 46% Boys 78%
Girls 66% Girls 86%

It is encouraging to see that there appears to be an improvement from year to year, but it must be noted that with less than 60 children from which to calculate percentages differences can be explained by the performance of a relatively small number of children, 2 or 3, and so a fall or rise of ten per cent from year to year should not be cause for undue celebration or alarm.

This principle should also be borne in mind when looking at current year 5 children's results, and those of last year's year 6. The results are disappointing when compared to the national averages, but we know of individual children who scored highly, and also a significant number of children who might be regarded as disaffected, particularly but not exclusively boys. This is in itself an issue that we take very seriously and we must continue to push for improved support in tackling the underlying reasons for it. At a national level 83% of all pupils excluded are boys. Another staggering gender biased statistic. A speaker from Okehampton College pointed out that at the time they decided to address the gender issue girls out performed boys in every area of of learning except one. Boys outnumbered girls by 4 to 1 in achieving a school detention.

Baseline assessment figures at Sticklepath show a marginal advantage for girls over boys, not as marked as the national figures. Two out of three intakes show considerable gains by the girls, whilst the mid year intake appears to prove the exception. Talking to their teacher it is clear that the figures here are influenced by the presence of four or five boys who have achieved well. In most of these cases there is a supportive home background with professional or semi-professional parents. This highlights another dimension to the 'boy-girl' debate, as although middle class girls generally out perform middle class boys, the difference between the performance of middle class boys and the children of unskilled or manual workers is far greater. Of particular significance to the educational achievements of any child appears to be the educational achievement of his or her mother.

Having established a basis in recorded statistics for there being significant differences in the performance of boys and girls, I will now briefly outline some of the explanations offered for that being so, which have informed some strategies suggested for tackling the problems.

Since time immemorial the reasons for different levels of intelligence, attainment or achievement have been subject to two opposing lines of argument. Nature, as governed by genetic inheritance and physiological factors, and nurture, encompassing the environment of learning and the experiences the child has, the opportunities they are able to grasp. Common sense tells us that a combination of these two arguments is likely to give a fairer insight into the issues raised.

The 'nature' side of the debate was presented by Geoff Hannan at the INSET day I attended at Park School in November. He pointed out that gender differences begin, fairly obviously, in the womb, although for the first weeks of development all foetuses are female. As the embryo becomes more complicated then if the child is to be a boy testosterone floods the developing child causing the body and brain to develop in different ways. In the female brain language centres develop more rapidly, whilst the male version develops greater spatial and visual centres. By birth the brains are visibly different with a structure called the corpus callosom in particular being larger in the female. This arch of white matter connects the two hemispheres of the brain, one largely emotional and the other more rational. This may be the legacy of thousands of years of hunter gatherer existence. This larger connection allows the girl to feel and think or speak at the same time. In boys, however, the reduced connection allows any highly emotional state to suppress the rational thinking processes. Girls are able to multi-task, thinking about and doing more than one thing at a time. For example ironing, watching T.V. and holding a phone conversation all together. The male brain is not suited to this, being more singleminded. Another physiological difference between boy and girl is the size of the heart. The male heart is larger and more powerful, enabling the hunter to use more speed and strength. It also pumps faster, particularly in emotionally charged situations. Emotion is linked to hormonic activity in the bloodstream. Adrenalin is sent to the muscles for example. Boys are able to respond very quickly, with flight or fight, to such chemical messengers, and when the need for them is over can rid the bloodstream of them more quickly. If you combine this information with the suppression of rational processes including language centres it follows that you cannot reason with a boy when emotionally charged, but once the situation is over a boy will calm down quickly. Girls on the other hand are able to harbour emotional feelings for much longer and are far more prone to sulking. Thus a boy can be told off, and ten minutes later be your best friend again, wheras a girl is a different story! There is a sense in which we are all both male and female, there are no definite polar ends to masculinity and femininity but as we grow we develop male or female traits to different extents.

Physiological differences do not mean that 'this is the way it is', The weaknesses of both sexes can be developed and the strengths exploited. We therefore now cross over to the 'nurture' side of the debate, bearing in mind that identical experiences will affect male and female in different ways.

The difference in language development is reflected, and perhaps reinforced in play. A girl plays with dolls, following a narrative structure practising her advanced language skills and multitasking, building on the ability to think in a linear way. A boy playing with a car makes car noises and is more interested in speed and direction and 'I wonder what will happen if I....' engrossed in a single minded way. The provision of different toys often reflects social stereotyping, but give a girl a car to play with and she will give it a name, a character and personality. It does not follow that you should then give a boy a doll. But by playing alongside him with his car he can be encouraged to explain what is happening in his imagination and build up narrative skills, making up stories to accompany his game.

The decline in organised social games and occasions such as mealtimes, with the rules of social interaction impressed into them, has largely deprived the modern boy of opportunities to catch up with the girls with the development of his language centres. Modern computer games in particular exercise those already advanced spatial and visual abilities, but hardly address language deficiency.

Later on as the child begins to attend school or playgroup strong influences on development come from their rapidly growing peer group and the pressures that go with it. Studies of groups of boys and separate groups of girls have highlighted various common traits in the way they interact. Groups of boys tend to be competitive, hierarchical and based on action, or doing things. Girl groups however tend to be collaborative, mutually supportive and based on discussion. Professor Debbie Epstein suggested that there was a need for boys to prove their masculinity within the group. The male image of football and fighting, making a boy 'rough, tough and dangerous to know' may be one to which boys feel pressure to conform. Not all boys want to be like this, but the quieter, more studious boys are often the ones to be labelled 'swot' or 'Cissy' and victimised by bullies. Many boy friendships are made and cemented in play fighting which often hurts, but which is often accepted with the spirit of 'boys will be boys'.

Role models are very important in developing concepts of just what it is to be masculine or feminine. Good role models for the younger boys are particularly important as they later turn away from adult role models and tend to look within the hierarchy of their own peers. Girls as they grow older tend to look for older role models and are more likely to emulate respected adults. Dr Epstein suggested that the media composite role model tends towards the 'superman' image without the balancing 'Clarke Kent' aspect.

Peer group pressure is very strong. It is noticeable from research that boys who do well at school are often helped at home, away from the view of the peer group. It is considered weak to request help from a teacher, although perhaps not to accept it when given, but it is also especially difficult for a boy to accept help from another boy. Girls on the other hand are happy to help each other. It is an acceptable female trait.

Returning to the combined effect of nature and nurture, Geoff Hannan offered a model of thinking and communication that has interesting gender based implications. He suggests that all communication falls into three categories. Descriptive, reflective and speculative. Descriptive communication states the facts, describes things as they are, or at least as they are perceived. Reflective communication is concerned with relationships between known descriptive facts and the reasons for them linking them in a linear way in order to make sense of them. Speculative thought is more concerned with statements such as 'What if?'

With its well developed language centres the female mind is suited well to reflective thinking, linking concepts in a linear way, verbalising those connections. The female mind is risk averse, however, and tends to shy away from the risks of speculation. The male mind is better suited to speculative thought. On learning a fact or concept the thought goes on to 'How can I use this?' He is less likely to be reflective, being more instinctive. The hunter needs to make instant decisions, taking calculated risks, whilst the gatherer must reflect on previous experience, be risk averse thinking of the implications of her actions, to ensure her safety and that of her offspring.

Thus 70% of boys learn better by doing things, i.e from experience.. of interacting with objects and systems, using trial and error, strategies that involve speculative thought. Girls like to think first, be analytical, reflect on the implications of what they know and then eventually get round to doing the task. They are suited towards relationships, people, and step by step processes where reflective thought is required. Girls think, then hopefully do. Boys do, then hopefully think.

It would be easy to continue for hours with this fascinating and rich subject. However any amount of thought would be unproductive if we don't consider the implications for us as a school in trying to address the issue of underachievement in boys, or for that matter in girls too. I will now move on to introduce some of the strategies suggested that claim to improve boys achievement without putting girls at a disadvantage. It will be seen that some also aim to address underachievement due to social disadvantage.

In suggesting his strategies for raising the achievement of boys, Geoff Hannan claims that his ideas will improve boys performance by 7% and girls by 3%. One of his main ideas is the strategy known as 'Go for 5'. Going for 5 might comprise:

The thought behind this is that whilst girls, used to thinking in a linear way, may generate many steps to completing a task, they need to be helped to focus on the main ideas. Boys tend to find it more difficult to break up a task into steps, and need to be helped to consider alternatives to their first thought or idea. The strategy encourages girls to prioritise and choose five main options, and at the same time encourages boys to use reflective thinking more and broaden their outlook.

The second strategy I have selected from Geoff Hannan's ideas is based on his suggestion of Descriptive - Reflective - Speculative communication. He calls it D-R-S sequencing. As well as getting the children to think in this way when writing factual texts whole lessons can be planned using this technique. By sequencing a lesson starting with the descriptive, moving on to the reflective and then to the speculative, it is possible to develop both reflective thinking in boys and speculative thinking in girls, thus addressing the needs of both. It also gives each gender an opportunity to build on strengths. An example might be:

River Crossings.

Descriptive: Pupils think of ways of crossing a river.
Teacher input - describe three in detail.
Reflective: Pupils think of pros and cons of methods suggested..
Teacher input - reflect on effectiveness of suggestions.
Speculative:Pupils suggest best crossing for a particular case.
Teacher input, here is what town planners have suggested for this river.

Mixed with the Go for 5 strategy this lesson becomes self differentiating.

Descriptive. Think of 5 examples. (More able manage 5, less able at least 1)
Reflective. Choose one of your examples. 5 benefits, 5 drawbacks. (Less able will come up with at least one advantage and one disadvantage.)
Speculative. Suggest 5 solutions to one of the problems you thought of.

In each case each step asks for 5 examples, stretching the more able, but to get to the next stage of the lesson you only need one idea to work on. So the less able are not left at base one. If ability groups are used to follow up a lesson then the less able should have a mainly descriptive task that encourages them to be reflective, mid range children a reflective task and then encouraged to speculate whilst a high ability group should be given a speculative task that asks them to reflect more on what they know to inform their speculation.

Classrooms should be socially engineered for the best learning experiences. The teacher should decide where a pupil sits with whom he or she will work. Pairs are generally far more effective than larger groups and it is suggested that highly structured tasks for mixed ability pairs will give the best results. Pairs should be swapped frequently. When larger groups are used it is suggested that they contain children who have already worked as a pair. The underlying principle of paired working, as opposed to working individually in pairs, is that it will activate what is called proximal learning. By taking away one worksheet the children share a piece of work. They are forced to co-operate. Each has a shared responsibility for the quality of the work. Boys have been found to use 35% more language skills in mixed gender pairings. Having high and low attainment children paired together encourages the more able to think through a task in order to explain it, gaining insight, and gives the low attaining child an explanation at their own language level. Geoff Hannan suggests a policy over time of one third friendship pairs, one third mixed gender mixed ability pairs and one third single sex pairs.

Structured class talk is a quick strategy that aims to level the opportunities for all children in 'hands up' situations such as class discussion, which is becoming more and more common with the literacy hour and mental maths section of the numeracy hour. In such a session the girl will think over an answer, reflects on the possibility of getting it right, the consequenses of being wrong, wheras the boy shoots up his hand and speculates with the first thing that comes in to his head. Children should be given time to think, communicate and then respond to a question. The children are paired informally and given between 30 seconds and two minutes, depending on the question, to talk in pairs. At the end of that time the teacher selects those who should respond, choosing for example an equal number of boys and girls. As all children have talked the question through they don't just tune out when they think they won't be chosen. The technique develops further their communication skills, particularly in boys, and gives girls longer to to think and come up with safe responses. This technique can be adapted to writing tasks. Children in pairs think about what they will write, talk with their partner, make notes and listen to their partners ideas, before both set out to write down the ideas which they have already communicated.

Okehampton college, in developing a school action plan to address the issue of raising boy's achievement, identified the following points for their initiative.

1. Raise awareness of teachers and parents.
2. Develop learning activities in PSME and other subjects.
3. Develop strategies to improve behaviour and organisation. (involving gender balance in classes and changing seating)
4. Change classroom management and some lesson content. (involving avoiding setting, setting structure and short term targets for boys, and reviewing the literacy skills of y 7-9)

Although Okehampton is a secondary school there is much to be said for considering some of its recommendations. Raising the awareness of teachers and especially parents can give guidance in the sort of activity that can improve their child’s development. How to encourage verbalisation of play with toy cars, for example and being aware of the limitations of expecting a boy to be rational when angry, can save unnecessary conflict.

Learning activities such as those described need testing out and trialling in a positive and open way, which requires the co-operation and commitment of those involved.

Strategies to improve behaviour and organisation are already being closely monitored here at school and first signs are encouraging. Okehampton college, in researching for their initiative, came to the conclusion that behaviour was directly related to literacy. They found that generally boys read little and enjoyed it less, wheras girls derived greater enjoyment from reading and read more. Since most subjects are taught through the medium of language a lower grasp of literacy inevitably led to depressed results in other subjects.

Gender balance in classes is important if the strengths of both genders are to be exploited. In the primary school this is perhaps difficult to control, but it must continue to be in our minds, especially in sorting out the new classes. Classroom management and the content of some lessons are issues being continually challenged by changes such as the literacy hour, but many ideas presented do correllate closely with many of the strategies I have mentioned here.

Avoiding setting was an interesting comment for me as we have moved towards this idea in maths in the last four years. Looking further into this subject, and this was also a recommendation made by Geoff Hannan, research indicates that only the top end of the attainment spectrum benefits from setting. Setting by ability tends to depress the attainment of both average and below average children. It is said that the U.K. education system serves the very able well, is good with the special needs child, but has the poorest performing middle 80% in the developed world. Very few of the other countries compared with us have any form of setting. Teaching in mixed ability pairs, activating proximal learning was suggested as a powerful alternative.

Finally, in our recent unsuccessful bid for funding to address this issue we identified four areas that we thought would enable us to tackle and understand the problems more fully. These were:

1. Developing teaching strategies, some of which I have outlined.
2. Setting up Primary Mentoring, which involves finding a way to help particular children causing concern with constructive individual advice and target setting with them for improvement.
3. Establishing a school council and peer group mediation system. The first phase of this is already under way and has made a positive start. Peer mediation is something which will need further expert input and unfortunately a course was cancelled which would have helped.
4. The purchase of books that were more boy friendly, such as non fiction, and stories that appeal to boys. Recent donations from the PTA have helped renew book stocks and will hopefully continue to do so.

An interesting comment made by Professor Epstein was that by making classrooms more boy friendly, with more competitiveness and boy friendly literature we may help motivate boys but we may well be promoting the very 'macho' culture that feeds peer group pressure to conform the the 'rough, tough and dangerous to know' image. It may also put girls at a disadvantage.

The image of males within our educational system, and especially the boys perception of what it is to be masculine, is something which needs careful consideration. The Kirklees materials on this issue suggest that pairing sensible older boys with young and more impressionable partners for regular reading help, in which the older child is trained, can be a very positive influence. They also advocate involvement of fathers, grandfathers, older brothers and other male role models who demonstrate the gains they have made through their education, in providing help and working with children.

The task ahead of us in tackling underachievement, not just in boys, but also in the socially disadvantaged and disaffected, is not an easy one. However by taking a step towards identifying possible directions we will be able to say that we continue to put the welfare of all our children at the centre of our planning and hopes for our school.