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Books just aren't boys

Boys' underachievement in reading and, more generally, in literacy causes the greatest concern about inequalities between the sexes.

This is one of the key findings from the latest research by a team from Strathclyde and Glasgow universities which provided further confirmation of "significant gender-related inequalities", exemplified in particular by exam statistics which show girls at all levels outperforming boys.

But the researchers, led by Rae Condie and funded by the Scottish Executive, warn that in treating gender equality as part of a broader approach to social justice and social inclusion, there is "a danger that gender becomes lost or fudged".

They add: "Schools and authorities should check that, where necessary, specific attention is given to issues in relation to learning and teaching.

Indeed, this may be essential in the light of the forthcoming legislation on equality."

Part 3 of the equality bill, currently going through Westminster, makes discrimination on the basis of gender illegal.

The researchers warn that local authorities' views on what is happening at school level do not always match the reality. For example, while some authorities indicated that all schools should have policy statements, they frequently did not. Only a very small number of authorities provided guidance for schools on addressing gender in the context of learning, teaching and achievement.

The team found the greatest awareness of gender differences among staff in pre-school and primary settings. Secondary schools tended to have approached the issue of gender-related performance and behavioural problems through single-gender classes - with mixed results.

In boys-only classes, behaviour management was frequently cited as problematic, confounding attempts to improve achievement and to raise aspirations. On the other hand, some felt that single-gender classes provided a structure for learning which increased motivation.

The report found that one school, which had previously adopted single-gender classes, had resumed integrated teaching and learning.

It stated: "There were mixed views regarding the benefits, or otherwise, of single-gender classes in specific subject areas. For instance, it was felt that single-gender classes in English provided opportunities for discussion about issues which would have been difficult to air in a mixed-gender class, but there was less consensus on the benefits in mathematics.

"There were concerns about using single-gender classes with groups of higher or lower achieving pupils, and also a feeling that the strategy was perhaps most valuable in S3 and S4 where behavioural issues were thought to be more in the foreground."

The use of girls in mixed classes to "police" the behaviour of the boys was seen by some as detrimental to girls' performance and aspirations. The reports adds, however: "For both boys and girls, their relationship with the teacher and the ability of the teacher to motivate them was more important than the form of classroom organisation which was adopted."

The research team also reviewed the research literature around the issue, and warned against stereotyping the way boys learn and matching teaching accordingly - such as the use of action adventures, football and machinery, requiring short concentration spans and changing the pace of activities.

"While this may be effective in managing those boys who conform to or aspire to such a model of masculinity, it ignores, if not disadvantages further, those boys who do not," the researchers say. "Neither does it address the issue of whether this is an appropriate, accurate or even helpful image to promote in schools, either for girls or for the wider community."

The report found little evidence of specific strategies to address gender inequalities in vocational education through, for example, support for pupils to pursue non-traditional subjects or career choices.

The team concludes that, for change to be effective, teachers need to operate from a position of informed professional judgment. "While many of those interviewed made reference to educational consultants, researchers and theorists, this was rarely as the result of targeted staff development events on gender-related differences and their implications for learning and teaching.

"Examples of good practice observed were often down to individual teachers' own interests or experiences, but were not always underpinned by a deeper understanding of the issues."

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* A recognition that gender is only one of a number of factors recognised by schools as having an impact on pupils' educational opportunities and achievement as well as future career possibilities.

* The initiative has a number of strands designed to address motivation, self-esteem and confidence and to challenge stereotypical ideas about roles, choices and behaviour.

* There are sound educational reasons, that can be communicated to parents, for adopting new strategies and approaches (which were often grounded in an understanding of theory andor research).

* There is a buy-in across staff, pupils and parents, with all three involved in the consultation, decision-making and the ongoing monitoring and further development of the initiative.

* Deliberate steps are taken to build the initiative into the day-to-day practice of the school and authority.

* There is ongoing monitoring that allows modifications and adjustments to be made as practices develop.

* While some funding and the existence of a "champion" in the initial stages are important, if not essential, these factors are not, of themselves, sufficient to sustain long-term development and success - nor is it realistic to expect to turn around achievement levels, for example, in a short period of time.

Review of Strategies to Address Gender Inequalities in Scottish Schools, Final Report. Dr Rae Condie, Strathclyde University; and Dr Alastair McPhee, Dr Christine Forde, Jean Kane and Dr George Head, Glasgow University.

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