The boys done good
It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was at a conference for English teachers at a smart hotel, the sun was shining. When the charismatic speaker explained how he had "dramatically improved" the attainment of a group of pupils by creating an all-boys' set and implementing dynamic strategies, I thought, bravely, "I could do that".
Fast forward 18 months. It's a wet, midwinter Friday afternoon and my all-boys' set 5 is not feeling the imminence of the GCSE exams with the same urgency as myself.
Inspired by the conference, we had created the all-boys' set, selecting boys with the lowest SATs scores (low 4 and below) and in many cases a negative attitude to English or school in general. I researched strategies and theories regarding boys' attainment, doing my best to implement them, and took up the suggestion to operate a points system in each lesson with certificates half-termly to acknowledge efforts.
I was sceptical, judging that if some of these boys were the "tough guys" of the school, they wouldn't care for my certificates. I was wrong, they didn't seem to feel patronised; they were pleased to be praised. I unfortunately lost the energy to keep up with the system, and their behaviour deteriorated slightly as a result.
Other advice I stuck to, however, was to tailor assignments to their interests and to link them as much to "real life" as possible. Some which went well were the analysis of trailers for two action films (short, sharp, exciting) and writing a letter to George Bush about capital punishment (I posted these, which really got their interest).
Breaking down written work into manageable chunks (shorter questions and writing-frames building up to longer essays) was essential as were regular speaking and listening and drama-based activities. In-class support was invaluable, not just for specific advice and an extra pair of hands, but for moral support.
The following year we repeated the idea but with a top set, as in that year the dip in boys' achievement was at the upper end. Similar strategies were used, but obviously with the aim of stretching the most able.
In the lower set, there were problems with the way the boys perceived themselves. At times, they told a joke - "Where do guinea pigs live?" "In English room 11" - which did not raise much of a smile from me.
Such attitudes needed counterattacks in the form of praise, assessment so they could see their improvements, and the odd sweetener such as a cinema trip. In the top set, however, boys were largely flattered they had been chosen and I continued to play on this, but again ensuring they saw tangible evidence of their improvements.
With this set I was able to expand my strategies. I was determined not to gloss over the hefty poetry element of the course, that stereotypically dangerous territory for boys, but to tackle it head on. Instead of minimising the poems I taught, I added more, not shying away from more difficult works (appealing to that sense of flattery again) and getting them to write poems of their own.
They kept poetry journals, confidentially recording their responses to the poems we read. Some of the comments as well as their own poems warmed my heart in a way that happens less and less. Comments such as "Don't tell anyone I said this, but I found this poem really inspiring" were worth all the effort.
While the reality of creating and teaching these sets was not simple, the method is worth considering if there is a need in a particular year group.
It does require extra thought and planning - not just in what you teach, but how you teach it and how you approach the class from the outset.
Not all of the boys would say they preferred it this way; not all achieved significantly higher grades. But we accept there aren't always easy solutions in education and that doesn't stop us trying to do something to make a difference.
Karen Lockney is head of English at Dallam Comprehensive School, Milnthorpe, Cumbria
Fiction for teenage boys, page 26