Lapped by girls

Elaine Williams

Boys don't like to be seen to work hard; diligence isn't cool. But they like learning or so they tell researchers trying to find out why they continue to under-achieve. Elaine Williams reports.

Andrew Craggs is in no doubt that it's all about image. Boys don't like to be seen to work too hard. If they do work hard they get called a "boff". At Thirsk School "boff" doesn't necessarily equate with intelligence, as much as diligence - and diligence isn't cool.

Andrew, aged 14, is one of a group of Year 9 boys, all in a top set for maths, who are being interviewed by their teachers about their attitudes to school. He is clever, but doesn't want to make a show of it. He doesn't believe anybody calls him a boff seriously since a boff is somebody who wears glasses, who is neat and tidy, whose hair is cut by his mum, who tries his hardest and never gets told off for anything - a sort of Beano swot. And that's definitely not Andrew.

It's all right, according to boy lore, to try hard on the football pitch because that's physical, it shows you're tough, and it's even all right to be good at art because that's natural talent. You don't have to work at it. Being good at music is acceptable but it depends on the instrument - electric guitar and drums are for boys, the clarinet and cello for girls.

Classical musicians can expect to be teased. "Some boys play the violin, " says Robert Gray, "'What are you going to get out of that young Mozart?' the hard lads will say." Boys, he thinks, are much more susceptible to peer-group pressure than girls. When it comes to revision for exams there are "quite a few lads who don't work at anything".

Boys think it's clever to say "I haven't revised for this test", according to Matthew Fowler-Jones. Boys don't like to spend time on homework, says Andrew, they prefer to go out.

Girls, they feel, don't make fun of each other in the same way. Image isn't so important to them. Girls don't mind staying in to do their homework. "They don't mind being called the teacher's pet," says Andrew. Boys are more self-conscious. Robert offers the example of French lessons -"Boys stutter more, they don't like talking in different languages. Girls are better. "

It isn't that boys don't like learning, says the group, but they want more active lessons, more physical involvement, rather than sitting and writing, especially when, according to Robert, "your handwriting is bad like mine".

Mike Brown, Thirsk School's deputy head, listens to what Andrew, Matthew and Robert have to say about their education. He is the man behind this school's unique, concerted effort to tackle boys' under-achievement and is conducting face-to-face interviews. "If you could use a lap-top computer with a print-out, would that make lessons more enjoyable?" he asks. Robert is sure that it would.

Mike Brown believes this is the sort of issue the school should be looking at. Boys often have difficulty with handwriting but not a lot is done about it. Robert is a bright boy in the top ability sets but here he is, worrying about his handwriting. More opportunities for word processing might be one way to improve motivation - and not just Robert's.

Thirsk is a popular mixed comprehensive for 11 to 18s, 950-strong and attracting pupils from a wide rural area sandwiched between the North Yorkshire Moors to the east and the Yorkshire Dales to the west. It was praised as a good school in a recent OFSTED inspection and has been described as a "happy place" by outside researchers. Generally, it does not have social problems and its boys don't seem alienated by the place.

The under-achievement of boys has become a national issue, and many schools are questioning what can be done - at least to get them to work; at best to improve radically their performance in exams. Few schools, however, are undertaking such meticulous self-examination and soul-searching as Thirsk, under the auspices of a Pounds 16,000 action research grant.

Teachers' concern was given some impetus when OFSTED inspectors suggested that Thirsk School address the issue of boys' performance at key stage 4. Mike Brown applied to a North Yorkshire Training and Enterprise Council development fund which could make cash available to projects "addressing the male success rate at GCSE".

The school's Pounds 16,000 grant - Pounds 10,000 this year and Pounds 6,000 next - is to examine every aspect of school life to find ways of stimulating male motivation.

Last year's GCSE results across all subjects, showed girls achieving 12 per cent higher grades than boys, a difference slightly above the national average. In practice there is a predominance of girls in top sets at Thirsk and a predominance of boys in the lower ones. The bottom set of Year 8 humanities, for example, consists of 80 per cent boys and 20 per cent girls. The top set of Year 9 maths contains equal numbers of each, but the top set of Year 10 English comprises 70 per cent girls, 30 per cent boys.

Twice as many boys are placed on detention as girls, and while membership of the school's councils is equally divided up to Year 10, girls then outnumber the boys by four to one. Girls gain more school merit awards and outnumber boys in the sixth form by two to one. While Thirsk School is strong in both music - its orchestra coming second in county finals - and drama, girls form the majority of players.

Part of the research grant is being spent on detailed surveys and analysis conducted by researchers from Newcastle University's Department of Education. Pupils in Years 10 and 11 have been questioned in depth.

Questionnaire returns reveal that boys are not alienated in the school, that 75 per cent of girls and 71 per cent of boys feel happy or very happy, and that there is a high degree of parental involvement in school work.

Up to 68 per cent of girls and 67 per cent of boys say they would turn to their parents to help with difficulties, a figure researchers feel is unusually high, reflecting a positive factor about school culture. One strong indication is that teachers could involve parents more overtly in encouraging their children to work.

However, researchers also found that a significant proportion of pupils perceive little value in homework and its contribution to improving their overall performance. This was true of 47 per cent of girls and 68 per cent of boys in science; 52 per cent of girls and 42 per cent of boys in maths and 36 per cent of girls and 42 per cent of boys in English.

When it came to reading, of pupils expecting to gain a majority of GCSE grades A to C, 62 per cent of girls but only 25 per cent of boys say they read for pleasure. Of those expecting to gain grades D to E, only 20 per cent of both sexes read for pleasure.

According to these statistics, able boys at Thirsk read no more widely than less able boys, but Mike Brown feels boys probably read more extensively than the figures indicated. "It depends," he says, "what you mean by reading. "

From their own investigations staff found that the school library is well used by both sexes, but that boys are less likely to take out books and read novels - both regarded this as a female activity - whereas they use the library as a work place and reference point.

"Boys perceive they should be reading novels when, in fact, many of them read newspapers, magazines, music reviews, information books." Validating different kinds of reading has become a serious quest for David Stevens, the head of English, and Lionel Twiss, head of upper school.

The TEC money has made it possible for five senior staff to research some significant questions about how their institution works. Since Christmas they have taken time out from teaching to interview pupils and to build up a detailed gender profile of the school. They have studied 600 pieces of work to examine and record teachers' marking and whether they differentiate between boys and girls; they have looked at the pattern of setting arrangements and built up a school profile of extra-curricular activity and the extent of male and female involvement.

"We have looked at the culture of the school," says Mike Brown," I think this is the hub of the whole issue. We have wanted to examine the level of boys' self-esteem and how they feel about success." Above all, they have talked extensively and systematically to groups of pupils, recording their perceptions of gender differences, teasing out implications for management and organisation of the school, and validating what is already being done.

Boys like setting by ability, according to Mike Brown. They gain security from it and feel it protects them from being mocked by less able boys. Despite their desire to play down the amount of effort they make, boys do, nevertheless, value achievement. Matthew Fowler-Jones, for example, felt happy when he was moved up into set one for science. "I really felt as if I had achieved something."

While senior staff have found no differences in the way staff mark the work of boys and girls, they feel certain methods of marking and rewarding good work are more effective.

"Boys look at the mark first and then they immediately compare their result with their friends. They are very competitive in this way," says Mike Brown. "But then they look for praise in the teacher's comments and advice for their next stage of work."

Thirsk has a strong policy on public praise and rewards good work through merit awards given out in assemblies. However, this research has shown that while younger boys respond to public acclamation, older boys respond better to personal praise given privately.

Mike Brown found that by Year 10, boys were turned off by the merit system. "Some won't even hand in merit cards for fear that they will be publicly proclaimed a success. They enjoy the positive, private comment. Girls take on public praise more readily."

According to Lionel Twiss, some staff feel that boys don't want personal attention, "that if you give them a lot of praise in this way that you devalue it, but that is in fact what they do want".

Their findings also reveal that boys like to see their names and work up around the school on noticeboards, but again they prefer this to be for sporting achievements, art or group work rather than individual academic attainment.

"This too has implications for us," says Mike Brown, "we have to find different ways of validating what boys do. Well-presented displays showing their involvement in school life in general, might be one way forward."

He cites the case of a 16-year-old boy whose father is the gamekeeper on the nearby Swinton Estate. "He's 6ft 6in, lolls about the place and, in many ways, school is the wrong environment for him. But he knows everything there is to know about game-keeping. We could have given him a camera to record his daily life at the Swinton Estate and displayed the results." That, Mike Brown now realises, would have been validation of what the boy was really good at.

Although a majority of boys say they enjoy drama, few get involved in school productions partly because rehearsals and workshops often clash with sporting fixtures and training. So the school will reconsider the way it organises extra-curricular activities.

It has already considered single-sex setting, but many boys feel they will fare worse without girls in the class. Andrew Craggs is clear on this point: "I wouldn't want to go into a single-sex group because boys would put even more peer-group pressure on you. They would pull each other down more." Boys say that the presence of girls undoubtedly contributes to improved standards. Conversely, they acknowledge that girls probably perform even better in a single-sex group. "Girls try as hard as they can," says Andrew, "and in a mixed group boys make fun of the girls as well."

Girls say that alone with their sex they become less self-conscious about the way they work: "They can say what they think more easily than when they are with boys," according to Jenny Crane, aged 13.

However, girls at Thirsk believe lessons would be poorer without boys. "Boys have different views on things," says Jodie Hampton-Champion. "I think we would miss them."


In the light of its research so far, Thirsk School is considering the following action:

* Changes in teaching style. More activity in lessons, such as practical investigations, role-playing and calling boys up to take part rather than waiting for them to put up their hands.

* Radical reassessment of methods of marking. Though staff cannot be asked to mark more, they can be asked to mark more selectively with detailed advice and personal commentary and praise.

* More regular consultation with pupils. This would allow children to guide staff more closely on what they feel will boost their achievement.

* Examining visual ways of celebrating pupils' success. The school is looking to employ a technician three days a week to present high-quality displays, photographs and text of children's work and activities. "We can use computerised cameras and desktop publishing to present a rapid and changing record of pupils' achievement in the school," says Mike Brown. "I think this is a priority for creating a positive culture."

* Discussing gender issues more overtly. This would be done through displays, in assembly, in meetings with parents. "Boys' parents tend to think they will get there in the end,"said Mike Brown. "We have to alert them to the problems. "

* More experimental initiatives. For example, seating boys and girls in pairs from the beginning of Year 7 to avoid negative peer group pressure among boys and holding special whole-school events involving musical, sporting and academic skills and as many pupils as possible.

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