Achievement gap

Michael Duffy

Did you know?

* Last year, 55.4 per cent of girls achieved five or more A*-C grades at GCSE as against 44.5 per cent of boys. Post-16, 76 per cent of girls stayed on in full-time education or training. Only 67 per cent of boys did

* In the Seventies, girls were seen as the underachievers. They did less well in GCE exams, left school earlier and were far less likely to go to university

* Contrast this with last year, when 55 per cent of graduates were women - and women were awarded more first and upper second class degrees than men

* About 83 per cent of exclusions are boys; they are 15 times more likely than girls to be excluded from primary school, and between four and five times more likely to be excluded from secondary school

Boys' underachievement has almost become a fact of life - seen as a problem that has always been with us. In fact, it is relatively recent. In the Seventies, girls were seen as the underachievers. They did less well than boys in GCE exams, left school earlier, and were far less likely to go to university. They tended to have narrower curriculum provision - "girls'

subjects" as distinct from "boys' subjects" - and more limited careers advice. But a social and economic transformation was starting. Parents, schools and girls themselves were increasingly aware of what women could do and achieve. Schools made a conscious effort to redress the imbalance.

What happened?

In all types of schools, girls caught up, drew level with and have now overtaken boys. Last year, 55.4 per cent of them achieved five or more A*-C grades at GCSE as against 44.5 per cent of boys. The pattern was the same across the range of grades: on average points, girls led by 42 to 36.6. Only in the "no passes" category did boys come top. It was the same in almost every subject. Girls got more top-grade passes in maths and science, and significantly more in English and languages. Only in business studies, IT and geography (where more boys enter) and in separate sciences (most pupils take double science) did boys do better. Even here, the advantage is narrowing.

At 16-plus, it's the same story. Last year, 76 per cent of girls stayed on in full-time education or training and only 67 per cent of boys. Half of the girls and 43 per cent of the boys took A-level or its equivalent. Of the students who passed three or more A-levels or their equivalent last year, 55 per cent were girls.

The trend is the same in higher education. Of last year's 18-year-olds, for instance, 23 per cent of female students went to university or college, but only 18.4 per cent of males. Fifty-five per cent of last year's graduates were women - and women were awarded more first and upper second class degrees.

In fact, girls are doing better from primary school onwards. At the age of seven, key stage 1 assessments already show a clear performance gap, especially in reading and writing. The gap begins to close by the end of key stage 2, but girls are still the higher-attaining pupils; 67 per cent of them achieved level 4 or higher in English, maths and science last year against 62 per cent of boys, although this year's figures show the emergence of an elite group of outstanding young male mathematicians. Provisional figures show 2,200 boys - and 800 girls - achieved level 6 in this summer's maths tests.

Why such a gap?

The experts say it's partly nature and partly nurture. Girls generally start to talk earlier than boys. They read earlier, and they read more; they develop fine motor skills earlier, and are better equipped for the start of formal schooling. They progress quicker and develop more positive attitudes. Once in school they tend to be more task-focused - more methodical and conscientious, better at revising, far better at tackling coursework. GCSE-style exams, which emphasise modules and coursework, seem to work in their favour.

Boys tend to be action-oriented - impatient, imaginative, inclined to take risks. They develop fine motor skills later than girls, and their learning and motivational skills are different. Their energy is more likely to be judged as misbehaviour.

Other differences arise from parents' and teachers' differing expectations, and from the differing ways social and economic changes may affect them. Schools sometimes unintentionally widen the gap. They value the qualities girls bring to their schoolwork - neatness, precision, perseverance - more than the energy and inventiveness that characterises, and distracts, the boys. They constantly test for progress, but because the emphasis is still on reading and writing skills, the girls keep winning.

Overwhelmingly, boys' first teachers are women. It's not surprising that some boys pick up the message that learning is really for girls. And schools are ill-equipped to cope with the social factors that seem particularly to affect adolescent boys - the pressures of youth culture, the need to be part of a gang, to find excitement, to compete, to be seen as cool. There is a danger, too, that we may be taking the gap for granted, expecting that boys will do less well. As every teacher knows, such expectations can be self-fulfilling. Thirty years ago we expected girls to do less well, and, obediently, by and large, they did.

Statistics can be misleading

Headlines seldom tell the whole story. Figures for higher education, for example, can conceal women's bias towards arts and social sciences degrees rather than science and engineering (where firsts are rarer). Similarly, statistics about the achievement gap conceal other causes of inequality - especially social and economic factors. Overwhelmingly, for instance, the pupils who get higher grades at GCSE come from professional or managerial backgrounds; only 30 per cent, according to the national youth cohort survey, come from working-class backgrounds. That's why free school meal eligibility is such a strong indicator of future performance. Ethnicity is another such factor.

Above all, the overall picture is one of dramatic improvement. At every level, boys and girls have been doing better. The problem - and it's happening throughout the European Union - is that girls have been getting better faster than boys.

Starting early

There is much evidence that schools can tackle it - and that the earlier you start, the better the results.

Gary Wilson was head of English at Newsome high school in Huddersfield in 1993, when Ofsted said the gap between boys and girls at GCSE was a key issue: on the five or more A*-C measure there was a difference of 17 percentage points in the girls' favour. Among the boys, Mr Wilson noted, an "anti-swot culture" was dominant.

He encouraged teachers from the nursery and primary schools in the Newsome "pyramid" to work together on identifying strategies to help boys to achieve their full potential (see case study). It grew into a formal gender and achievement working party, and more and more staff came to be involved. They analysed the problem ("In Year 1, most of the boys just want to please their teacher; by Year 6, all they care about is pleasing their mates," said one teacher) and the best ways of tackling it. Pupil grouping strategies, carefully structured lessons with instant feedback and reward, parental involvement, and the screening of resources and teacher-pupil interactions for gender bias were all seen to be important. But the most pressing need was to generate real self-esteem among the boys. Paired reading partnerships, peer-tutoring systems and lots of "executive" responsibilities (escorting visitors, running the office at lunchtime, and so on) all seemed to be effective.

The results have been dramatic. In the primary schools, levels of disruptive behaviour have declined and boys' literacy improved. At Newsome, the boy-girl gap at GCSE had closed, by 2001, to a mere two points. The negative attitude that Mr Wilson had identified - the idea among the older boys that "it's cool to fool" - was less prevalent.

Ofsted described Queen Elizabeth high in Hexham, Northumberland, as a high-achieving school, but here, too, it identified the gender gap as a key issue. One of the obvious factors, according to headteacher Tony Webster, was that too many of the boys were failing to meet coursework deadlines. An immediate policy of early intervention made a significant difference. Then a school-wide review of boys' learning styles identified the value of an accelerated learning programme and, in particular, what accelerated learning trainer Alistair Smith calls "chunking" - packaging learning tasks in specific, short-term units and giving quick feedback ("and plenty of praise") when they're completed. Mentoring from the start of Year 10 for boys (and girls) who failed to meet their in-course targets was the next step, with a school-wide review of revision programmes and material, and sessions with parents on helping their children revise. A partnership on writing developed out of this, involving all Hexham's contributory first and middle schools. As Mr Webster says, none of this is rocket science - but in this year's GCSEs, boys outperformed girls on the five A*-C measure and only narrowly failed to match their average points score overall. "You have to keep telling the boys that they can really do it," he says.

Not just the boys!

Former head Peter Downes, now an independent trainer and consultant who has been working with schools on underachievement since 1996, adds that you have to tell everybody else as well. The strategies that work with boys also work with girls: essentially, they are about finding out how each pupil learns best, not just those who are perceived as troublesome and less able, and certainly not just boys.

Geoff and Angela Hannan, specialist consultants in this field, carry it a stage further. Their starting point is that children learn from, and teach, each other - that how children are grouped in the classroom is crucial. "The classroom should never be seen as just a social environment; rather, it should be a socially engineered environment for learning," they say.

Their argument is that, up to GCSE, children should spend much more time in what they call pair-work interaction: one-third of it in friendship pairings, one-third in single gender, non-friendship pairings, and one-third in mixed gender pairings. The teacher's task is to choose - and vary - the pairings and set appropriate tasks. Then every child benefits - high-attainers by learning to explain, boys by learning to listen, girls by learning to be more assertive. Pair work, the Hannans say, emphasises communication and the exchange of learning. It also breaks up the friendship groups of boys that give their teachers so much hassle. What has to be avoided, everyone agrees, is "sink" sets dominated by boys. Setting by gender has often been tried. The indications are that this may raise standards overall, but doesn't close the performance gap. Many schools have experimented with it - especially in modern languages and science, where the gender gap is greatest - but there is little evidence that it works. "Anti-swot cultures exist in girls' schools too," says Gary Wilson.

Getting it right

Some key strategies should be applied across the whole school and beyond:

* Recognise the problem. Pupils, staff, parents and governors need to be aware of under-achievement, and need to know how the school is tackling it and what part they can play. Gary Wilson produces exemplary materials for each of these groups (see resources).

* Set school and individual pupil targets and use prior attainment measures to set specific short-term objectives. Focus on the weakest subjects; give extra support; monitor progress; use lots of praise.

* Create a climate of high expectation for all pupils. Work on parental and business support; identify and celebrate positive role models, especially for boys; create lots of opportunities for pupil involvement, responsibility and pride. Create as many opportunities as you can - not just in schoolwork - for public recognition of success. Devise strategies to involve boys in extra-curricular music, drama and art, not just sport.

* Build on boys' strengths. Try a website magazine to encourage their writing, or a day-long technology project (provided they work with girls) to develop their teamwork.

* Use PSHE lessons to explore peer pressure issues.

Classroom-centred strategies include:

* Review your teaching. The more active the learning - more practical investigations, more role play - the more the boys enjoy it and the better they work.

* Structure every lesson. Boys learn best if there is a clear framework for the lesson or the topic within it, and a clear framework for the tasks they are set. (Don't say: "Find examples of..." Say: "Find five examples of...")

* Use competition. Boys like competition - even (for right answers in quick verbal tests, perhaps) league tables with promotion and (carefully monitored) relegation.

* Monitor resources. Boys sense that the school curriculum is too girl-friendly. Schools can't help that, but they should constantly monitor lessons to check that examples, resources and role models are equally boy-friendly. Monitor your classroom interactions, too. Girls get praised for being neat. What do boys get praised for?

* Make reading central. Every classroom and every teacher, Gary Wilson says, should constantly reinforce the message that language is the most important tool we have; that without it we can't imagine, think, plan, persuade or explain. One way of doing this is to ensure pupils spend time together doing just those things.

But what about behaviour?

"It's not our teaching that's the problem," some teachers say, "it's the boys' behaviour." About 83 per cent of exclusions are boys; boys are 15 times more likely than girls to be excluded from primary school, and between four and five times more likely to be excluded from secondary school. Increasingly, the macho (and disruptive) anti-swot culture of the lower sets in secondary schools is being reported in primary schools, too. For an increasing number of boys, it seems, school symbolises a fundamentally alien authority.

Does bad behaviour lead to poor progress, or is it the other way round? Teachers are right to say that much of what they struggle against is imported from outside the school gates: teachers alone can't fight society's battles. But there is a price to pay, as Professor Ted Wragg has argued in The TES, for an education system dominated by credentials. Those who don't achieve them are deemed (and deem themselves) failures. Part of that price - literally - is the vast amount of teacher time schools devote to "pastoral care", all too often a synonym for containing bad behaviour. But strategies do work: they raise the self-esteem and the achievement of pupils - boys and girls - who would otherwise fall into the familiar cycle of underachievement, truancy and failure. Schools that have used these strategies report, the Hannans say, "an increase in participation, improved relationships in class and around the school, and a commensurate decrease in bullying and behaviour problems". Not to mention, of course, improved results.

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Michael Duffy

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