In 1995 only 33 per cent of boys at a Tameside school were gaining five GCSEs, compared with 53 per cent of girls. A year later the boys had caught up. Mary Lawrence, Sharon Dempsey, Steve Goddard and Paul Clarke explain how the impossible was achieved.
The recent revival of the debate over boys' underachievement has come as no surprise to us. For some years the boys at St Thomas More High School, Denton, Tameside, had been slipping further and further behind girls in examination achievements, a fact that Office for Standards in Education inspectors had noted. Like other schools we had learned that boys don't want to be seen to work hard, diligence isn't "cool", and yet many of them enjoy school and the challenge of learning.
With the help of a team of postgraduate students from Manchester University's School of Education and a researcher from Manchester Victoria University School of Education we have, however, begun to grapple with this paradox and are making some headway.
In the first phase of our project the students helped to collate and analyse data from GCSE and key stage 3 results. They also studied our banding and setting arrangements.
Their data confirmed what we had suspected: that all of the higher key stage 3 sets were dominated by girls, and that their work was generally much better than the boys'. We talked about the problem in staff meetings and the consensus was that boys' attitude to learning was not as mature as that of the girls. Boys seemed unaware of this difference in their attitude and application to learning and had unrealistic expectations given their actual performance.
We began by discussing the differences in achievement between boys and girls with parents and Year 9 pupils at the key stage 4 information evening. We told them about the noticeable drop in pupil motivation in Year 8, and we talked about the anti-education sub-culture amongst boys which assumes that boys go out a lot more than the girls, that they spend far less time on homework and that they are not prepared to draft and redraft assignments.
Parents nodded in agreement, particularly those with both sons and daughters. Meaningful looks were exchanged between parents and their children as we talked about the time pupils should be devoting to homework.
We set out what was expected from all our pupils. We did not relate our comments to them personally, only to the type of behaviour which we felt was inhibiting their opportunities to learn, and at times preventing others from learning alongside them. Our message was that we were determined to establish a school culture where it was OK to work and do well.
We believe that communication with both pupils and parents was a key factor in improving performance. By sharing information on expected performance at an early stage in Year 10 the boys began to have a better understanding of their level of achievement and the need to improve. Individual pupil interviews were held at different stages of KS4 and targets were set.
Parents were seen as partners in this process. Early contact was made with the parents of children who were not fulfilling their potential and strategies were introduced to support those pupils. Early intervention meant that we were often able to prevent crises. Information on day-to-day progress was communicated to parents through pupils' journals.
A range of staff now had pictures of each pupil through regularly produced assessment information and could talk to them about their work. This was extremely effective, particularly with pupils experiencing difficulties.
Among the other strategies we have employed are: use of praise to motivate, careful and regular monitoring of classwork and homework, a range of teaching and learning styles, and study skills tutoring. Most important was the commitment of every member of staff to ensure that each pupil achieved the best possible results.
We told our pupils what these should be and that we believed they could be achieved. The result was that the proportion of boys obtaining five GCSEs at grades A* to C rose from 33 per cent in 1995 (when 53 per cent of girls reached this level) to 50 per cent in 1996, the same percentage as the girls achieved.
Of course it could be suggested that the girls lost ground because of the focus on boys' achievement, but we believe the slight deterioration in girls' GCSE scores in 1996 was only a blip. The programme we have adopted is improving the girls' performance as much as the boys'. In fact we expect the girls to achieve higher GCSE results than the boys this year. Next year, however, we should see the boys' results improve again relative to the girls'.
St Thomas More is now one of the pilot schools in the Improving Standards in Schools Initiative (ISIS) pioneered by Tameside Education Department. With the help of Paul Clarke from the University of Manchester, we are aiming to consolidate the previous success. We want to develop our use of rewards and sanctions, and look at the factors which contribute to a learning climate such as the display of work, the classroom layout and the involvement of all students in extra-curricular activities.
We are confident that we can boost the performance of boys but we still do not know which configurations of the numerous strategies we have tried are most effective. Two departments, English and humanities, are focusing on some tactics which we believe are especially successful, such as rewards systems and targeting attention on particular groups of pupils. This work is planned to continue over the next two years.
We know already that boys' underachievement is a complex issue. "Simple" solutions offered by those outside schools, such as teaching boys and girls separately, appear to us to be inappropriate.
There are, however, three stages which we would recommend to any school attempting to address the problem of boys' underachievement. First, find out what differences exist within school between the learning experiences for boys and girls. Second, make sure that everyone knows about and acknowledges the differences in achievement and learning of boys and girls. Third, have a consistent approach across the school towards boys and their learning and ensure that everyone has information about each pupil's potential and level of achievement.
Mary Lawrence is headteacher of St Thomas More RC High School. Sharon Dempsey is the ISIS project co-ordinator, Steve Goddard is senior manager responsible for ARR assessment recording and reporting. Paul Clarke is a researcher in school improvement at Manchester Victoria University School of Education