Report on raising male achievement shows how targeting class rebels can influence the whole year group. Michael Shaw reports
Teaching a teenage boy how to improve his punching skills might not seem the most sensible way to stop him starting fights. But when Danny Fogarty was suspended for a second time for fighting, his school bought him a pair of boxing gloves and paid for him to attend lessons.
The 14-year-old pupil at Colmer's farm school in Birmingham says that he has felt less aggressive since starting the sessions at a local boxing club five months ago.
He also believes his improved attitude is rubbing off on his classmates, as he is popular with his year group.
"If a teacher is stressing me it doesn't bother me so much," he said. "I think it's calmed the other kids down as well because they see that I'm calm and ask themselves what the point is of getting in trouble."
Giving trouble-makers extra support is not a new idea. However, the proof that it - and a handful of other approaches - can play a crucial role in improving boys' achievement has become increasingly clear in recent years.
The latest evidence comes from researchers at Cambridge university, who spent four years examining the different strategies used at 50 schools which have succeeded in narrowing the gender gap.
Their Raising Boys' Achievement report looks at practical ways schools can help tackle the macho culture that makes many boys think it is uncool to study.
The study also puts the debate over boys' apparent underachievement in context (see box), warning against generalisations about male pupils'
"An all-pervasive view of boys as underachieving because of a laddish masculinity ignores the fact that, in many schools, boys are achieving high levels of success in academic, community, sporting and artistic contexts," it said.
"Indeed, some girls are taking on the laddish attributes of their male peers and we need to pay greater attention to the monitoring of withdrawn, quiet, less visible girls whose quietness may hide severe problems."
Many of the strategies the researchers examine are equally effective at tackling the ladettes as the lads. Among these is targeting "key leader" pupils, often, but not always, the rebels or class clowns whose behaviour influences the rest of their year group.
As Danny Fogarty found with his friends, making these pupils feel more of a part of their school has a ripple effect, improving the behaviour of their followers and classmates.
One unnamed school in the North-east which has been assigning a teacher to act as a "key befriender" for each of its ring-leader pupils has seen the proportion of boys getting five A* to C at GCSE rise from 48 to 85 per cent since 1998. Its girls' results also reached record levels.
This scheme, along with other mentoring programmes, allows boys to work without fear of losing face because there is clear pressure on them to study.
The education watchdog Ofsted made the same finding when it reported on boys' achievement two years ago. The inspectors said: "In schools where anti-learning peer pressure is a major barrier to boys' achievement, close monitoring can give boys an excuse to succeed."
A higher-profile method for giving boys the confidence to speak up in lessons has been the introduction of single-sex classes. But here the evidence is more mixed.
Peter Daly of Queen's university, Belfast, and Neil Defty of Durham university examined the attitude and maths results of 14 to 16-year-olds in 294 schools.
Their report this year concluded that girls' results improved in a single-sex environment - but boys did not do as well as they did in mixed classes.
This does not fit in with the claim last year by David Miliband, the then school standards minister, that the evidence in favour of segregated classes is "startling".
The research which he referred to, in a speech to the Girls' Schools Association annual conference, was from the then unpublished Raising Boys'
Achievement report. It looked in depth at one co-educational school in southern England which introduced single-sex lessons in English classes for underachieving pupils, then spread them to mixed-ability sets for maths, science and modern languages.
The proportion of boys who gained five A* to C grades at GCSE rose from 68 per cent to 81 per cent while girls' results increased almost identically.
The Cambridge researchers said that examples like this one were "compelling". "Freed from the concerns about image, appearance and the need to 'perform to role', boys and girls have repeatedly described the advantages to be gained from being taught in single-sex classes - a willingness to engage more in discussion and questioning, being prepared to discuss emotions and explore feelings, a readiness to participate without fear of scorn or discomfort."
However, a telephone survey by the researchers of 31 schools which had tried single-sex classes gave more of a mixed picture, as some schools reported that behaviour had worsened or that they had abandoned the approach because they had not seen benefits. Even in the schools where it worked, neither boys nor girls wanted segregated classes for all their subjects.
Other initiatives which the researchers found could boost boys' results included drama projects, such as a scheme where teenagers took part in workshops on Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre, and schemes where older boys are teamed with younger ones to read books together.
But the research team's overriding conclusion was that no individual initiative could act as a panacea. The schemes only worked in schools which had a clearly-defined ethos and discipline, strong leadership support and a culture where all staff and pupils felt valued.
Alan Steer, chairman of the Government's new task force on pupil behaviour, agrees that these factors are vital.
Sir Alan, who is headteacher of Seven Kings school in London, said: "There are no magic solutions. What there has to be is respect between teachers and pupils - and there is nothing soft about that."
Raising Boys' Achievement is at www.dfes.gov.uk