In the balance
When he gave his class a project on the polar regions, David Russell* selected a small group of children for a particular task. He asked them to produce an information booklet on the Arctic and Antarctic, researching it themselves, designing and illustrating it. When they completed their draft, they had to proof-read and correct it before presenting a finished version.
But pupils were not chosen for this special assignment at random. Even though it was a mixed class, it was no accident that the children putting together the booklet were all boys.
"Boys need to have a context and a reason to write," says Mr Russell, who teaches a mixed Year 45 class at a primary school in the East Midlands. "They had a motivation and ended up producing something of good quality. Girls can sit and enjoy writing and they don't need that purpose - they just get on with it."
The gender gap in achievement is nothing new. Research and exam results consistently show that girls outperform boys, and this disparity is particularly pronounced in English, where 9 per cent more girls than boys reached level 4 in this year's key stage 2 tests for 11-year-olds (see table).
But why is this always the case? Academics have long debated the idea that boys and girls should be taught in different ways, while others blame changes in the economy and society. But one persistent strand of explanation for boys' consistent underachievement is that the education system has become biased towards girls - with a predominance of female teachers and an assessment system that elevates girl-friendly continuous assessment above sudden death exams, where boys tend to perform better.
To overcome this imbalance, boy-friendly books have had a dedicated shelf in many school libraries for some time, on the assumption that boys prefer reading biographies, non-fiction and sport. But more teachers are now extending this differential approach to teaching styles, in the belief that it is not so much what you teach as how you teach it that counts.
"I don't think it is the curriculum that is at fault," says Mr Russell. "The problem is the traditional methods that teachers use. Boys often learn in a more active way, when they are using the skills they have learnt. As far as possible I try to have an active classroom, where the skills are being practised, but I don't think that many primary schools accept there is a difference in the way boys and girls learn."
He says girls sit down and work in a more academic way at an earlier stage than boys, giving them a headstart in preparing for their key stage 2 Sats exams at the end of Year 6. While many girls develop writing skills at the age of seven or eight, it is only in Year 5, at nine or 10, that many of his boys get the motivation to write. "I have to force them to sit down and get to a good standard of writing," he says.
Research carried out by Wendy Bradford, a former headteacher, found that boys were more reliant on good teaching to be able to make progress. She found that girls were more likely to compensate for average teaching by their own efforts. "Boys are a better barometer of good teaching and learning than girls," says Mrs Bradford, now headteacher support officer in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.
She coined the acronym "Vest" to describe teaching that stimulates boys, where it has variety; engagement (in getting the children to discuss it before answering a question, for example); social (sharing it with a partner); and transforming information from one form to another, such as from oral to written.
As a secondary head in Huddersfield she had a "boys' zone" in the library and lists of boy-friendly texts, but she says this was only a first step to stop boys being sniffy about reading. The next stage was to broaden their horizons, on the assumption that there should be no "no go" areas in literature. "With the right approach, anything can be accessible to boys," she says.
Active classrooms are not just for boys, she adds. Girls, too, can benefit from being encouraged to get more involved with the lesson. "It is not just about raising boys' achievement; it is about getting girls to be more inquiring learners."
But there is a danger in trying to cater for boys' interests, as Kevin Harcombe discovered. As head of Redlands Primary in Fareham, Hampshire, he attempted to tackle the gap between the sexes, particularly apparent in reading and writing.
One approach was to introduce more boy-friendly reading into the library. "We went down the road of adventure stories, cliff-hangers, graphic novels, toilet humour - boys like anything about underpants - and football magazines," he says. "We also included the Argos catalogue, on the basis that reading is reading."
It seemed to work, with more boys taking an interest in reading. This was reflected in the Sats exams, with boys doing substantially better than in previous years. The only problem was that the girls had done worse than expected. When teachers asked the girls why they had not done so well, the response was that the library did not contain any girl-friendly books.
"We went to look and they were absolutely right," says Mr Harcombe. "If they had not said this we would have carried on buying books for boys." In trying to engage the boys, he realised he had tipped too far the other way.
The school has now redressed the balance, but it doesn't mean that efforts to interest boys have stalled. While he is keen to avoid stereotyping - some girls like reading adventure stories and some boys hate football - he believes there are some characteristics common to both sexes.
"In general, boys will prefer learning that is more active; they prefer doing things to thinking or writing about things," says Mr Harcombe, primary head of the year in the 2007 Teaching Awards. "If a lesson is deadly dull everybody is going to switch off, but in a sense girls are slightly more pliant."
Getting the children involved in drama is a good way of introducing writing sessions, he adds, ensuring that boys do not have to sit still for too long at one stretch.
This doesn't only apply to reading and writing. The school also aims to make science lessons as hands-on as possible, as well as regular group work - the E and S of Mrs Bradford's Vest. "If you get boys to collaborate they will do better, and I find the competitive element can reap dividends," says Mr Harcombe.
Although the library now features books aimed at girls, attempts to encourage boys to read continue. In an effort to persuade boys that reading is not for girls, the school has put up pictures of the head and other male teachers reading, and a group of dads and grandfathers regularly come in and read to the children. Mr Harcombe says that this is particularly useful for boys who are struggling with reading.
"I don't know if it is a male bonding thing or whether they feel less worried about failing in front of another man, but there is something going on there," he says.
But he believes most impact is achieved by getting to the children before they come to school. If parents at playgroups and even post-natal classes can be persuaded of the importance of reading to boys it can have a profound effect on their attitude to books, he suggests.
Kate Aspin believes that seven is a key age in a reader's development. Below that age, children want to please their teachers. Parents are often more motivated to listen to a six or seven-year-old read than to an older child, says Mrs Aspin, a former primary deputy head and now senior lecturer in education at Huddersfield University. If children still struggle to read at 10 or 11 their self-esteem may push them into giving up. "If they stop reading at seven they stop reading altogether," she adds.
While echoing Mr Harcombe's warning of the dangers of generalising, she agrees that struggling readers tend to be boys. She says boys enjoy running around more than girls, and may take longer to develop the motor skills required for making marks with a pencil. She says some schools start children writing with squeezy paint bottles, larger movements eventually giving way to smaller ones with pencils.
Cartoon books and biographies, particularly of sporting heroes, can be a good way to get boys interested in reading. A tactic she tried as a teacher was to slip a difficult book inside the cover of one considered easier, to encourage boys to stretch themselves.
Another approach was to pair weak Year 5 readers, usually boys, with Year 1 pupils. "They loved that, because they could read to these children."
She also found it useful to play on boys' competitive spirit. "I used to pair boys up to encourage a little bit of competition and put in activities based on speed," she says. "Boys tend to like faster-paced lessons."
She agrees with Mr Russell that boys need to see the point of a lesson if they are going to get really involved. Getting boys to read out the first draft of their stories to younger children helps them to understand the point of redrafting, she says.
"If they see it is going to be a project or it is for an audience they can understand, but if they think they are just going through the motions they can lose interest."
The need to understand why they are doing something carries on into secondary school. "The first thing we encourage our teachers to ensure is that boys see the relevance of any lesson," says Mark Weir. "They like the big picture, they want to see what is in it for them. Girls trust you; boys want it explicitly stated."
Mr Weir, school leader - the equivalent of assistant head - at Slemish College in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, says girls approach a lesson with the mindset, "Tell me everything I need to know", while boys are more suspicious. As a result, he starts all the tasks in his English lessons by asking his class which one of four categories it falls into: technical, analytical, context or practical.
He says that boys are more likely to switch off if the class is working through a hand-out; they prefer structured practical activities. He also plays on their competitive spirit, getting them to challenge each other with questions about set texts, and encourages them to "sell" their notes. The pupil with the most "sales" gets a reward.
Instead of traditional praise, he also uses affirmation. "Boys don't want to be picked out in front of the class, but we have postcards we send home," he says. "They like to see progress and feel a sense of achievement."
A variety of approaches ensures there is something to appeal to girls as well, he says. "If every Macbeth activity was Army-related it might be a problem, but all of this is done with girls in mind as well."
Mrs Aspin agrees. She emphasises the importance of not going so far down the road of appealing to boys that the result is to alienate girls. The most successful approach is to use a wide range of strategies, she says, and treat the children as individuals.
KEY STAGE 2 RESULTS 2009
Percentage achieving level 4 or above in England
Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families.