Boys' Behaviour - Bye bye bad lads

27th February 2009 at 00:00
Rather than punishing class clowns, some schools are providing mentors to create a rapport, identify problems and offer support. The result is happier pupils and better grades

Spencer, 15, just could not help himself. He became boisterous in lessons because, he said, he found them boring. He'd waste time, whisper to friends and constantly try to gain the attention and laughter of the class. When he was reprimanded, he'd answer back and get into deeper trouble.

He's your archetypal "lad", mirrored and replicated across the country. Every school has its lads, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "boisterously macho or high-spirited" men, although girls are almost as likely to display laddish behaviour (see box, opposite).

Laddism is not usually at the high-end of behavioural problems - the pupils are often likeable class clowns or popular rebels as opposed to aggressive or rude troublemakers - but their disruptive anti-work ethos can set the tone for a whole school.

Hurworth School in Darlington refused to let Spencer's attitude contaminate the rest of his year group. Instead, it turned to a mentoring scheme, in which Spencer revealed that his teachers had low and negative expectations of him, especially in maths.

The mentor brokered a deal: Spencer was offered a unique "get out of jail" card for maths, which allowed him to leave the room and join his mentor if he felt tempted to "kick off". Rewards were promised if grade predictions improved, but no change would trigger sanctions.

Spencer appreciated the effort the school was going to and stopped flaring up so much in lessons. He tried harder and, with a calmer class, his maths teacher felt more able to experiment with creative teaching styles. Spencer was predicted a grade E in maths GCSE but achieved a B last year.

Individual success stories like this have driven Hurworth's whole school improvement. In 1998, 38 per cent of pupils gained five A* to Cs. Last year, 94 per cent hit that benchmark. It is also in the top 1 per cent of schools nationally in terms of value added scores, and boys do almost as well as girls.

Eamonn Farrar, chief executive at Hurworth School, insists that its personal "assertive mentoring" programme enables pupils to opt out of laddish behaviour without losing kudos.

"Lads will always choose to protect their status over and above their school work," he says.

"The mentor offers them an excuse to work, because he or she will be constantly on their back, challenging them. It allows the pupils to protect their self-image with friends while still getting the work done."

The approach borrows heavily from Robert Cialdini's work, a psychology professor at Arizona State University and author of Influence: The psychology of persuasion. To motivate people into action, we need social proof, he argues - a belief that people such as ourselves are doing the same. Hence, why all children must be targeted in mentoring as opposed to a chosen few.

Professor Cialdini also stresses the importance of reciprocity (as seen in the deal brokered with Spencer), and highlights how people prefer to follow authority figures who appear to be trustworthy experts.

Mr Farrar recognised this for himself when he first introduced external mentors to the school. "They didn't have the clout," he says. "Mentors must be in a position to make changes that only well-established, respected teachers can make."

Not all of Hurworth's 42 teachers are now mentors, but good communicators are a natural choice, no matter whether it is the deputy head or the headteacher's personal assistant. Every Year 9 and Year 11 pupil is assigned a trained mentor who is carefully matched to their characteristics.

They meet at least once a month for five to 10 minutes - anything beyond that slips into a "cosy chat" - where their progress is assessed and data- driven targets set. If problems emerge, various solutions are agreed, such as peer modelling to promote better behaviour, phased returns for persistent truants or perhaps a cut back in homework for those who have fallen too far behind. Those identified as being on the CD borderline in Year 11 may be allowed to drop a subject they struggle with so that they can concentrate on the others.

"In the past, targets were wildly different depending on each individual teacher's philosophy," says Dean Judson, headteacher. Some opted for high, unachievable grades, while others went for lower targets they were bound to beat. Now four members of the senior management team use sophisticated data, plus teacher input, to accurately set aspirational but achievable targets. They are rarely more than 1 per cent out.

The approach has had wide-reaching benefits. "I did nothing on attendance, but it went up from the mid eighties in 1998 to 96 per cent last year," says Mr Judson. "Now that the pupils can track their achievements, they have more positive experiences of school. They want to be here."

Mike Younger, co-researcher of the four-year, government-funded Raising Boys' Achievement project, backs the programme. "It offers pupils a face- saving device that enables them to work without undermining their own sense of being a lad or ladette," he says.

"They may want to achieve, but they want to do it effortlessly. The mentors let them know that they must work to succeed, and they can use that as an excuse with their peers." Their friends will understand because they are likely to be in the same boat themselves.

Key to mentoring's success is short-term, academic targets that are clearly communicated to pupils, Mr Younger believes. It must also be demanding and rigorous. "Children need a sense of challenge. If they just accept as a historical fact that they are an average pupil they will have no reason to strive for better."

One teacher involved in the project told his under-achieving mentee: "Your teacher of 20 years' experience tells me you're on course for an E grade. Her experience and mine is telling you that unless you change your attitude, approach and work rate, you're in for a shock. It's no B grade you're looking at, trust me on that."

This might sound harsh, but pupils appreciate the tight focus on grades and goals. "In my previous school, mentoring wasn't linked to grades," one boy told researchers. "It wasn't very precise or helpful. Here, you get to see where you're at and know what to do to get higher (grades)."

The more influential the pupil, the more important it is to get them towing the school line. Mike Younger says that the "leader of the lads" was almost always a boy when his research began in 2000, but now about a third are girls. "Schools must get these characters on board as a matter of urgency. They should be linked to an experienced, credible befriender who can get to know them, create a rapport and offer support in regular meetings."

But schools will face an uphill battle when so much in society condones laddish behaviour, argues Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, who has written extensively about gender and social identity in schools.

"Having a laugh instead of working hard or being a boffin is given a certain masculine prestige in society," she says. "You only have to look at Hollywood movies to see that nerds aren't popular while the action hero gets the beautiful girl."

The Government's Gender Agenda, which tracks research and evidence in this field, says schools that successfully narrow the gender gap by minimising laddish behaviour, tend to have high expectations of all their pupils. Boys achieve more in schools that focus on good teaching, as opposed to "boy-friendly policies" or single sex teaching, it suggests.

"When made aware of stereotypes, there is a risk that boys will live up to them," adds Professor Francis. "Laddish behaviour is exacerbated because that's what's expected of them. If they're told they can't excel academically, they will find other ways to win, such as by making the class laugh."

Assertive mentoring, pedagogic excellence and a focus on the key players in the playground can offer a third option: popularity and good grades. That really may give the Spencers of this world the last laugh.


The ladette movement was as much a cultural feature of the mid Nineties as Britpop and New Labour. In 2001, the word ladette even earned a place in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, with the definition: "women who behave in a boisterously assertive or crude manner and engage in heavy drinking sessions".

But not all ladette traits are negative, argues Carolyn Jackson in her book Lads and Ladettes in School.

More confident, self-assertive and sporty girls is surely a good thing, she says. And who's to say that these have to be male traits, while females forever monopolise academic success?

Either way, the teachers in Dr Jackson's research found ladettes as, if not more, troublesome as lads.

Dr Jackson suggests that much of the behaviour is a defence mechanism against fear of academic failure - and that the current stress on high stakes testing makes it worse.

A more co-operative approach to learning, with pupils working together towards common goals, may help remove their fear of trying, not succeeding and losing face in the process.

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