Helping the boys to help themselves;Platform;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Single sex classes at a Motherwell school may indicate a way forward for others, say Jim Wilson and Molly Cumming

THE underachievement among boys in S3-S4 is a cause for much debate and Dalziel High School in Motherwell is conducting a three-year research project that began in 1998 with two aims. First, to improve attainment in mathematics and English language at Standard grade. Second, to try to identify general precursors for improving attainment that could be used in future with any school-based initiative concerned with attainment.

As no additional funding or staffing was available, the study depended on the co-operation of the maths and English departments, redirecting the existing co-operative teaching allocation to direct teaching. Within Dalziel the "top" Credit level classes in these subjects are predominantly female. Avoiding these classes, the decision was made to separate the "middle" CreditGeneral level classes within S3 and S4 in an attempt to improve the attainment of boys. Smaller, singe-gender classes were introduced.

To merely reduce the effort and commitment towards teaching and learning for one gender, and redirect it towards the other in an attempt to "balance things up", was certainly not conducive towards an aim for equality in attainment. To this end some emphasis was placed on attempting to improve the attainment of the girls, and seek a narrowing of the disparity between the genders in the S grade examinations.

Epstein's research at the London Institute of Education supports the view that single-gender strategies for pupil organisation can enable progress among boys. She cites single-gender classes in Denmark, where teachers were able to adapt their style of teaching to classes of boys or girls. Most encouraging, though, was that these improvements seemed to continue when the pupils were returned to coeducational classes at the end of the trial period. This is an important point for the Dalziel study as pupils involved in the single-gender classes will, ultimately, return to coeducational classes in these subjects, in S5.

By introducing smaller single-gender classes, staff were aware of the difficulties in identifying the impact of smaller class size on attainment, in relation to the effect of single-gender groupings. This has been accommodated within the study. This decision was based on two assumptions.

Reduced class size might help improve attainment, and it was possible to manage, so it was worth introducing. Also, if both the "boy" and "girl" classes were reduced in size, the relative effect of class size, in terms of impact on attainment, could largely be ignored. The study also took care not to lose sight of the many other factors that affect attainment, such as social class, ethnic origin, parent-school expectations.

Four areas show significant differences between pupils in single-gender classes and pupils who remain in mixed classes: behaviour in the classroom; understanding of subject; teacher-pupil relationships and pupils' enjoyment of the subject.

Analysis of Standard grade results for 1998-99 shows that, contrary to the reservations about changes in internal school attainment, external attainment is still improving. Interestingly, for the first time in many years boys did not significantly underachieve in relation to the girls in mathematics (45 per cent of S4 boys achieving Credit mathematics in relation to 41 per cent of S4 girls).

It is too early to say if the results are statistically significant. However, they appear to go some way in validating both the schools' approach to addressing the problem and to identifying precursors.

Before any definite conclusions could be reached about the significance, it would be necessary to have access to all the data collected over the three year study period. Yet triangulation of all the sources of data currently available suggests that improvements in attainment are likely to be occurring within these two subjects.

There were no statistically significant differences in responses. Both boys and girls were "happier". Teachers who taught the single-gender classes were also overwhelmingly in favour of retaining them, although class size may play a part.

Brian Miller, Dalziel's headteacher, says: "There was only one area where I felt this initiative could have been considered to have had a detrimental effect and that was on the S1 co-operative teaching time that was lost. We remedied this by introducing S6 pupils, who volunteered, to be 'maths pals' and 'reading buddies'. Not only did this remedy the problem in S1, it has let the S6 pupils gain a wealth of experience of working with others.

"There are one or two areas of the study that we still want to improve on, and it's possible that one or two people could nit-pick over details here and there, but I answer them by saying at least we're doing something."

In a climate where "value-added" is a recurring theme, the study reflects not only a school serving its pupils, but also encouraging professional development among its staff - allowing one of the authors to link his role in the school study to the theme for his MEd thesis. Conclusions from that study seem to indicate that four precursors of future improved attainment may, indeed, have been identified.

If continuing monitoring and future exam results confirm their validity, these could be used to ascertain the effectiveness of different types of initiative aimed at raising attainment. The task at Dalziel goes on supported by the headteacher, staff and the department of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

Jim Wilson is assistant principal teacher of mathematics at Dalziel High and graduates MEd at Strathclyde University this month. Molly Cumming is a senior lecturer in the university's department of educational studies and directs its MEdEdD programmes.

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