Boys and girls perform best under different learning styles. Recognising this and focusing on equality in schools will help all pupils to improve performance, writes Diana Hinds
In the Seventies and Eighties the educational performance of girls was, probably for the first time ever, in the spotlight. As a result of this much-needed, focused attention, girls began to blossom in schools. Now, as we are continually reminded, girls outperform boys in almost all subjects at all stages of statutory education.
Boys are back in the frame once again, this time with their underperformance the target of national concern. Everywhere we hear talk of "girl power'' and a notion that "the future is female". Boys are getting it in the neck, in the media at least, and the anxiety, predict-ably, rubs off on schools.
Schools look at their results, see the widening gap between girls' and boys' performance and, in some cases, rush to implement costly mentoring schemes, behavioural strategies, or buy new books for their boys.
The true picture, for any one school, is likely to be more complicated, and the situation will vary widely from school to school. In an effort to stem the panic, West Sussex County Council has issued guidelines to all its schools, urging a more considered approach.
"We are trying to encourage individual schools to investigate their own situation very thoroughly," says Anne Feltham, general adviser for languages in West Sussex. "If they don't, there is a very real danger that they dive in and start focusing on boys, without knowing what the issues are. That can be counterproductive, and the girls may well get lost in the rush."
Dr Janette Elwood, a specialist in gender and assessment at the Institute of Education in London, says: "What needs to be clearly stated in any discussion of underachievement is that there are problems with some boys, but not all boys. Also, there are still particular problems with some girls."
Gender plays a part, but so too do race and class. Recent research commissioned by Ealing Council into the home life of 5,000 pupils from the age of four found that social class is a crucial factor in determining how well a child does at school. Working-class boys, says Professor Kate Myers, of Keele University, tend to be performing less well than middle-class boys; white working-class girls too are a vulnerable group.
"Gender must be kept in perspective," says Anne Feltham, "and factors such as home background, the level of home support and ability on school entry must be taken into account."
Schools also need to look carefully at the subjects where groups of pupils are underachieving. In a few West Sussex schools, boys still outperform girls in science by about 15 per cent. Nationally, girls are still under-represented in post-GCSE science courses. And in West Sussex, three times as many boys as girls study mathematics at A-level.
Girls may be getting good exam results but for many lack of self-confidence, low self-esteem and aspirations remain issues their schools need to address. Schools report, for instance, that girls capable of becoming teachers set their sights no higher than nursery nurses.
Professor Myers' survey of 9,000 pupils found that a large proportion of girls reported themselves as less able than they actually were, while a greater number of boys regarded themselves as more able.
The solutions to problems relating to gender will be different for each school. West Sussex recommends that schools start with comparing school data with county and national data. This can be followed up with surveys of pupils' attitudes, monitoring of pupils' work, observation of pupils and teachers in class and a review of curriculum planning to ensure boys and girls have equal access to learning.
Whatever the difficulties with boys, schools should be focusing on equality, says Dr Elwood, and not leaning on the girls to improve the boys in some way. Schools must remember to celebrate the successes of girls - and boys- and not neglect the fact that girls still need help themselves.
Research has established that boys and girls learn and respond in different ways and have preferred learning styles. Given a writing task, for instance, girls tend to be better able to produce what the teacher had in mind, whereas boys tend to need more help with structuring and benefit from more short-term goals. Boys, too, tend to be the classroom "risk-takers", hazarding opinions and guesses, where girls may be more fearful of getting the answer wrong and need more encouragement.
Adopting a range of teaching strategies will help to accommodate these differences. Geoff Hannan, a freelance education consultant, works in more than 140 schools a year demonstrating a panoply of strategies. But schools need to be wary of falling into the trap of biological determinism and neglecting the needs of particular groups or individuals who do not conform to the gender "types".
"Schools must beware of quick fixes," says Dr Elwood. "Teachers really need to know much more about gendered learning, and this ought to be a much bigger part of their training."
Focusing on boys' underachievement can be a way of raising achievement all round, if schools use it to look at the curriculum, argues Elaine Millard, director of the literacy research centre at Sheffield University.
"It's harder now for boys to avoid areas they are less good at, such as essay writing," she says. "So we need to find ways of supporting them in the things they are good at. If, for instance, using technology more helps the boys, then it will help the girls too."
It may be too late to put right the problems with boys once they reach secondary school, says Annabelle Dixon, visiting scholar at Cambridge University school of education. "Boys need something different from the beginning," she says. "They need a framework which allows for more physical activity when they start school, and then they will be more likely to settle down.
"If boys gain a positive attitude to learning, in my experience, they will take on a wider range of interests as they get older. So, if we focused on difference earlier, there might be less division between boys and girls later on."
HOW TO GET BOYS AND GIRLS TO DO BETTER
* If you think your school has a problem with underachievement, investigate the situation thoroughly before taking action.
* Do not assume underachievement is a problem with all boys. It may affect some groups of boys - and some girls, too.
* Boys will not respond positively to being told girls are doing better than they are. Much better to be able to say to an individual: "Here is a subject in which you need to improve."
* Performance data - school, county and nationwide - can be a good starting point for assessing where weaknesses lie, and which pupils are not achieving as much as they could.
* Surveys of pupil attitudes (such as the Keele survey) may be useful, together with close monitoring of pupils' work.
* Review curriculum plans to ensure that the strengths of boys and girls are being sufficiently channelled and developed.
* Teachers can develop their awareness of gender in the class-room by focusing on their own expectations and treatment of boys and girls. Are both boys and girls receiving an equally positive experience of school?
* Read the research on boys' and girls' preferred learning styles and try to incorporate these into classroom practice. Grouping boys and girls differently for different activities may also be useful.
* Employ a range of teaching styles and strategies to tackle gender issues: there is no quick fix.
* Do not lose sight of the girls and their continuing needs. Low self-esteem may be a problem for some, even if their exam results are good.
* Keep on celebrating achievement - by boys and girls.
It's just so unfair
Friday magazine, page 14