The 1993 Ofsted report for Newsome high school highlighted a difference of around 17 percentage points between girls and boys obtaining five A*-Cs at GCSE - well in excess of the national average of 10 points. The average gap from 1999 has been less than 3 points; an achievement that has not been at the girls' expense.
Like all good schools with a problem, we formed a working party and, after much deliberation and study, produced a sexual harassment policy. Why? We realised that if we were to raise boys' achievement, we needed to address the nature of the boy culture at school, which was antisocial, anti-academic and sexually intimidating. At this stage, the group declared its dual purpose: to make a difference to levels of achievement, and to develop a more caring masculinity within the school. It was also clear that anything we did that addressed the behaviour and performance of boys would have a major impact on girls.
We had already decided we were starting too late by mentoring borderline boys in Years 10 and 11. So we began mentoring Year 8 boys in groups, having identified that year as critical for those who were starting to fall by the wayside as a result of the "anti-swot culture".
But this still wasn't early enough. In 1995, after two years studying and conducting our own research, we turned to our feeder schools. The Newsome "pyramid" is made up of three infant schools, three junior schools and the high school, an 11-16 comprehensive. We chose to work together because we shared the same children and considerable knowledge of the same communities, we had colleagues from all phases we could bounce ideas off, we could raise the profile of literacy and homework as a pyramid, and we could track children. We also considered the issue of what happened to boys at transition to be vital.
A whole pyramid group met monthly for three years and kept all teachers informed through a newsletter. Each school initially took on board one initiative and undertook one investigation - these ranged from work on bullying to shared reading. In the latter, we used older boys with low self-esteem, but some reading skills, to teach younger, far less able readers. Like all work that began on pupils' self-esteem, it paid great dividends. One school developed a young executives' scheme, training boys (and girls) to take on significant responsibilities; peer counselling (a befrienders' scheme) began at the high school. We also investigated the use of playground space, gender bias in teacher talk, pupil grouping and the interviewing of high-achieving boys. Two years into the pyramid project, we decided to involve parents. The outcome of a well-attended parents'
conference was a leaflet full of advice as to how they could help raise the achievement of their boys. This leaflet, Let's Hear it for the Boys, is now used by all Kirklees primary and secondary schools, and is on sale around the UK (see resources).
But if one strategy has paid the greatest dividends, it is quite simply showing boys we are on their case. Boys are good at fancy footwork, they often wildly overestimate their ability and believe they will succeed without expending any energy. By showing them we know all that, we believe we have got closer to the underachieving boy.
Gary Wilson is a senior teacher at Newsome high, on secondment to Kirklees school effectiveness service as raising boys' achievement co-ordinator. A summary of the report - written for the Teacher Training Agency - on the Newsome pyramid is available from: email@example.com