Fast goals, fancy footwork

25th July 2003 at 01:00
Short-term targets are just one of the many ways schools can get the best out of their boys, writes Gary Wilson

Predictably the tabloids found their headlines in response to this month's Office for Standards in Education report, Raising Boys' Achievement in Secondary Schools: "Sit them BoyGirl, BoyGirl." What? But why make all the girls suffer for goodness sake? Not surprisingly, the report does not advocate that at all. But as there is some danger that this message may stick, I believe someone should make it clear. Allow me. Quite simply it would be wrong. Of course, it is useful for a boy to be sat next to a girl in question-and-answer sessions when the natural risk-taking behaviour of boys can be tempered by the more reflective approach of girls, but there is more to it than that.

There is clearly a need for whole-school seating policies, which mean anything from the school declaring "I decide where you sit" to teachers producing flexible seating plans for reasons including language development and avoidance of peer pressure. In addition, effective group work demands that the teacher varies pupil groups according to the task, ensuring that over time, everyone has the opportunity to work with everyone else.

The other headlines, of course, noted that boys would only work well if they were being taught well. This is not exactly a case of stating the obvious. It is my experience that if boys do not feel a real sense of purpose, relevance and, in the case of writing, a real audience, then they are far less likely to engage. Similarly, as the report highlights, pace, short-term targets and short-term goals are also very significant for boys.

Learning outcomes need to be extremely explicit from the outset. Many secondary schools now use small whiteboards next to big whiteboards, on which they display the learning outcomes for all to see.

The report rightly highlights the benefits for boys of a whole-school focus on teaching and learning, and the need to firmly embrace the key stage 3 strategy. It rather understates what is an absolute necessity - the need to tackle wholeheartedly cross-curricular literacy. This goes far beyond off-the-shelf writing frames, and demands a systematic approach across all subject areas in teaching and constantly consolidating, for example, research and planning skills, and the skills required to write pieces of extended writing and evaluations. The report should also, in my view, have singled out one more element of the strategy - the plenary. In current training for teaching and learning in the foundation subjects, a great significance needs to be attached to this, as one of the biggest barriers to most boys' learning is their inability to reflect.

There are many references to information and communications technology and its power to engage and motivate. While at one point it says the use of ICT needs to be "good", I believe a little more emphasis is needed here. There is a belief in some quarters that ICT is a panacea as far as raising boys'

achievement is concerned. Not so. If a boy cannot write effectively without a computer, why should he suddenly be able to when you sit him in front of one? He needs support and structure and effective teacher interaction. He also needs, for example, the strategies that will stop him cutting and pasting an item from an encyclopaedia on to a blank page, adding his name to the bottom, and handing it in without having read it.

The report states that many boys work harder when monitored closely.

Correct. As we know, many boys are tremendous at fancy footwork, overestimate their abilities and often believe everything will work out fine in the end without much effort. I believe a lot can be achieved by letting boys know that you are on their case. Of course, we must ensure that we are not just constantly highlighting their underachievement and failing to offer them the wherewithal to improve. All targets must be linked to strategies.

The importance of a "positive learning environment" is briefly mentioned, and is of major importance. At a local school where I asked 900 pupils how they like to be rewarded for good work, only 30 said publicly, in assembly.

Most said by letter. Such schools need to ensure that they take on board what pupils are telling them whilst at the same time doing significant work on developing an ethos that enthusiastically celebrates achievement. I believe we have a long way to go.

An even greater issue, which is only mentioned in passing on two occasions, is the kind of peer pressure which we refer to as the anti-swot or anti-boff culture. The report suggests that there is "some evidence" of its existence. I am truly sorry to say this, but this culture is endemic in virtually all of our secondary schools, and what is more, I am discovering it in Years 6, 5, 4, even as low as Year 2. It is a crime against equal opportunities and needs urgent action in all schools.

I welcome the Ofsted report as a means of widening the debate into barriers to boys' learning, but neither the reasons nor the solutions are straightforward. There is no quick fix. We need this on the agenda at all times, not just when exam results are published.

Gary Wilson is Kirklees' school improvement officer for raising boys'

achievement, and author of "Using the national healthy school standard to raise boys' achievement", which can be downloaded from

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