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Essex boys have to fish for compliments

Paul Burton on how an illuminating playground chat confirmed his view that schools need a fresh strategy for male under-achievers.

SEAN and his followers resembled a cross between Bart Simpson's friends and the South Park gang. One was a Kenny look-a-like, peering out of a small opening in a jumper pulled over his head - because of the DIY haircut he had given himself.

The 10-year-olds confronted me as I watched them one lunchtime on the playing field of their primary school. "My sister's seven and she's a lesbian, what do you fink of that then?" Sean said. Deadly silence.

Desperately seeeking a change of subject I noticed a fishing magazine tucked inside Sean's trousers. I asked whether he liked fishing. "Mister, what's the biggest fish you've ever caught?" he asked. I responded enthusiastically: "A 4lb tench, when I was your age." Street cred restored and inducted into the gang, I spent the next half-hour listening to them talk about boillies, tares, spade hooks and quivertips.

Sean proudly showed me his well-thumbed fishing diary containing wonderful accounts in his best handwriting of where and what he had caught, with sizes and weights, baits used and weather conditions on the day.

During my conversation with Sean's gang I also gained an insight into their social background of cramped living conditions, poor diet, health problems, sibling rivalry and some financial hardship. At the end of lunch, Sean hovered behind and asked for help tying his shoelace.

I asked what lessons he had that afternoon. "Corrections," he said glumly. He then explained that he and his Year 5 classmates had just taken a practice Year 6 national test paper and he had not even got level 3. "Cos I'm dumb!" he said despondently.

Sean's comment reminded me of an episode of The Simpsons when Bart needs to pass his history test to avoid repeating the fourth grade. Unfortunately, hefails the test by one mark. In despair he quotes an obscure reference to George Washington's surrender of Fort Necessity to the French in 1754. His teacher, recognising this demonstration of applied knowledge, gives him another mark and he passes.

If only the education system could recognise Sean's potential so perceptively. He would certainly think differently of himself if there was some acknowledgement of the applied knowledge, evaluation and thinking skills that he displays in his fishing.

No, I am not suggesting that we add fishing to the curriculum. But in the light of boys' under-performance, we need to ask if key stage tests assess the right things.

Research shows that boys and girls think differently. Boys like competition and challenges, facts, and stories with plots; they are exploratory, more tactile and have shorter attention spans.

National tests, being largely literacy-based, tend to favour girls. But it can also be argued that we are now seeing the results of a 20-year drive to raise girls' achievement. We need a similar scheme for boys to harness their potential.

Paul Burton is a senior adviser for Essex education authority responsible for co-ordinating the improvement of boys' educational performance.


ESSEX is one of many authorities trying to address boys' under-

achievement. It is focusing on 22 schools. In an attempt to encourage boys to read, the schools are looking at a range of research findings and experimenting with gender role models. One nursery has even involved the caretaker in its book corner.

Secondaries within the chosen group are examining how seating arrangements affect boys' "time on task". And the use of writing frames is being explored in primaries. It is hoped that they will boost boys' self-esteem and attitudes to learning as well as providing structure for extended writing.

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