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Tales of snips and snails

Shropshire is one of the few local authorities to tackle boys' literacy problems. Reva Klein reports on its Boys and English project. Boys are underachieving at school. This year's GCSE results were the worst ever across the board for boys.

Most high profile among the low performance areas is English, thanks to the 1993 HMIOfsted report entitled Boys and English, which forcefully brought to light boys' poor performance, particularly in literacy skills. Paddy Orr, the HMI, now retired, who wrote the report, believes that "the gap between boys and girls in language based subjects has widened because girls' attainment has improved. It is an international trend. The French are concerned about boys and so are the Germans and the Japanese. The Americans have been looking at this area for years. It is not a recent development, nor is it British nor is it English. But it has become an accentuated area for focus because of concern about boys' employment opportunities".

While there is a growing body of literature and theorising on boys' downward academic spiral in English from age seven, there is precious little written to date on how teachers are addressing this problem, on the methodologies they use and how others could adopt them.

As one professional observer puts it: "There are no quick fixes. Teachers are at a loss to know what to do, seized up, possibly, by the complicating factors that they know they can't do anything about, like cultural stereotyping. "

Part of the problem is that the professional response is still patchy. The National Association for the Teaching of English has a Gender and Language Working Group which carries out research and produces support materials on the issues. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is planning a report which will review such initiatives as exist. But nationally the picture is very variable. One of the few local authorities that has wasted no time in dealing with boys' literacy problems is Shropshire. As part of its RAISE (Raising Achievement In Shropshire Schools) programme, the LEA runs a Boys and English project that is now in its second year. It involves a group of schools working with an advisory teacher to assess attitudes and achievement, implement strategies to raise attainment and evaluate those strategies. It is as comprehensive and holistic an approach to a newly acknowledged problem as you're likely to find anywhere.

When the Boys and English Ofsted report was first published, Shropshire's English adviser Peter Traves took it very seriously indeed, sending out a synopsis of the report to every school in the county. From there, a group of eight or nine secondary and six primary schools came together under the guidance of advisory teacher Ann Malcolm to implement changes that would support and encourage boys.

There were three basic principles that Peter Traves asked schools to adopt. First, the fact that what is applicable to boys may also be relevant to girls. In other words, circumstances that were keeping boys from achieving their potential could be having the same effect on girls. Second, that nothing that was undertaken to help support boys should in any way work to the detriment of girls. And third, that it should be born in mind that not all boys underachieve and that it was important to look at successful boys and what motivates them in order to understand how best to motivate their less successful peers. Detailed monitoring of academic performance, as part of the RAISE project, was instituted from key stage 1 onwards and, in the words of senior advisor Keith Hedger, "our analyses of raw and value added results are used to provide schools with background information on achievement of different groups in the schools".

Val Penny, head of English at the Wakeman School in Shrewsbury, one of the participating schools, took on Peter Traves' guiding principles. She quickly identified the fact that boys at the school were not underachieving in relation to national figures but were underachieving in relation to girls in the school. The first thing to change was sets, which at the Wakeman begin in Year 9. "We immediately changed our set groupings. As in the Ofsted report, our top sets were predominately girls. So we changed our setting policy and looked at indicators of potential rather than performance and reorganised accordingly. Instead of five sets of descending order, we reworked it. The most successful balance is two top groups, one middle and two bottom. Then we split the bottom group into two halves with two teachers, the mainstream teacher and learning support teacher. It has really lifted performance, levels of motivation, attitude and morale." The Year 7 and 8 pupils receive three hours of English and two hours with learning support teachers, no matter what their ability.

Having dealt with restructuring the sets, the content and methodology of lessons was evaluated. "We've tried to make well-managed oral work a centrepiece of English lessons, raising its status along with drama and extra-curricular activities." A whole-school policy on supporting pupils' writing was instituted as part of Wakeman's assessment policy. The school has standardised its approach to writing, spelling, marking and providing quality feedback.

To assess attitudes, questionnaires on reading habits were carried out with the Year 9s, since this was the group identified by the school as showing a marked dip in independent reading. The results, in Val Penny's words, "quite astounded us by the vast difference between the girls and boys". While nearly half the girls said they "liked reading a lot," less than a fifth of boys did. And while nearly three quarters of the girls said they shared books with friends, only 8 per cent of boys said they did.

Ms Penny was interested in the connection between the motivation to read and finding enjoyment in it and sharing books with friends. The English department tackled this in a variety of ways, including initiating a system whereby all children swapped texts in the classroom and then talked about what they had read. The main aim was to create a positive and lively reading environment for both boys and girls.

Library lessons, too, took a different form. They have become an opportunity to teach different skills - using the CD-Rom, encyclopedias, working collaboratively as a group - for the purpose of presenting different topics that the pupils are called upon to research. "The boys very successfully collaborate in mixed groups, using the different media in their presentation. "

Val Penny and her team are positive about the project and about the results they have been able to assess so far. "We're creating a positive environment and an atmosphere of high expectation - with support." Next year, Shropshire intends to tackle boys' writing: how to improve the teaching of it, how to support pupils more effectively, how to help them write under exam conditions.

English adviser Peter Traves believes that early and consistent assessments and careful monitoring will offer many insights into the different levels of achievement between girls and boys. Particularly useful will be the focus on those boys who ordinarily would not have attention drawn to them. "We're looking not at the pupils with learning difficulties but at those boys who can read and write in a way that wouldn't give cause for concern. These are the boys with little enthusiasm for literacy who don't respond with great insight to what they're reading." Different schools are developing different methodologies to motivate and raise the status of literacy. One is looking at the important role of non-fiction reading in boys' lives and the high currency that facts have for them. Others are adopting a more interventionist role for teachers in the choice of reading material that children are given.

Another aspect of the RAISE project is the research component, in collaboration with Sheffield university. For the past five years, the university has been helping with results analyses, breaking down statistics to look at value added factors. This has helped schools identify specific groups that require targeting, among other things.

"RAISE is about trying to get at the root of how children are doing and why there are differences," asserts Keith Hedger. "It's a testament to the professional attitudes of our teachers at what is a very difficult time in education."

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