A cunning mix of football and competitiveness is helping to tackle boys' underachievement. Susan Young reports
It's Monday, and the boardroom of a Hertfordshire school is heaving with 12-year-old boys. Some are cheering with delight; others are not too happy.
But they all leave with a bounce and a look of determination.
You'd hardly guess it, but this is the school's underachievement squad, who have just discovered where last week's efforts have placed them in their very own league table. At the top again is Ryan Ward, and he's over the moon.
"I'm really proud to be top of the table," he says. "My mum and dad are proud of me. Last year I was underachieving but I didn't realise until September, when we started this.
"Now I'm quite good in my lessons. I used to be distracted by other people round me. Now, I'm just ignoring stuff and listening to what the teachers are saying."
Ryan is one of 25 pupils on an innovative scheme at Marlborough School Science College in St Albans, Hertfordshire, designed to tackle the national problem of boys' underachievement. It's early days, but the indications are that the scheme is working well. And so it should, cunningly designed as it is to appeal to teenage boys with its mix of football and frank competitiveness.
The scheme is the brainchild of Alison Pantling, Marlborough's energetic director of learning for Year 8 and its newly created consultant in boys'
underachievement. "Boys love the competitive aspect of this," she says.
"They are jumping around all over the place in the league table. Some shoot up it each week, sometimes directly into the top 10. One boy's doing so well, I said someone ought to knock him off the top. The nice thing is he is working really hard to stay there."
The boys were chosen if they had poor marks for home learning and study attitude on their grade cards at the end of Year 7, or if teachers had concerns. "That meant there was something wrong, they were not doing their best. Some of them are bright boys," she says.
The boys were given five goal cards and a pen for their student planners.
Lesson behaviour can score a "goal" or a "miss", as can finished or unfinished work. "Sometimes the boys come to see me and say, 'I got nine goals today, Miss,'" Alison says.
At weekends, she tots up the scores. The top 10 get letters home, while the top three earn cash towards a gift certificate. On Mondays everyone meets for a team talk to see the new table, discuss problems and get some lavish praise. High scorers' names go in the goalmouth on the wall in Alison's office.
She regularly doles out pencils and praise, encourages low scorers and runs morale-boosting events, such as an achievement assembly with a motivational sports speaker. "They'll be talking about the importance of keeping on going, that there are benefits to working hard," she says. The ultimate goal? The gleaming FA (Fantastic Achievement) Cup, which was won by Ryan last term.
Each boy meets his sixth form mentor weekly to look through the planner, discuss progress, and help them improve, sometimes by talking to teachers.
"The mentors compete to try and get their students up the table," says Alison.
Adam Mead, a 16-year-old mentor, says: "They are lively young kids and more than willing to talk to you about their problems, but it's not like, 'Oh my God, I'm struggling'. I think it's brilliant sixth formers doing this. We are on their level but more likely to understand where they are going wrong. It's almost like they know what's wrong but don't realise it. I'm like: 'So you got a poor performance in maths,' and they say 'I sit next to so-and-so'. They quickly see it would be a good idea to move - it's little things like that." Adam adds: "It's better from me than a teacher without a doubt."
Solutions are often as simple as remembering to write homework in the planner, or avoiding certain pupils. In addition, teachers are using different teaching and learning styles to focus more on boys. "What's good for the boys won't harm the girls," says Alison. And comparing "before" and "after" grade cards shows it seems to work.
"Although there are going to be some factors which have changed, such as different teachers, and growing up, on study attitude only five pupils out of the squad haven't made any improvement at all. In home learning 18 were doing better, which means 75 per cent made some improvement," she says.
It also works because it's simple to run, partly because the mentors do much of the work (rewarded by UCAS points). "It takes an hour a week to do the scores," says Alison. "To get staff behind you, you have to ensure there's not too much paperwork. People are supporting and brilliant if you make it as easy as possible."
And football provides the final part of the motivational jigsaw. She says:
"What we want to do is instil responsibility. We say: 'If you are a footballer and you haven't cleaned your boots, these things happen.' It's the whole issue of taking responsibility for their learning."
HOW TO GET THE BEST FROM THE BOYS
* Be enthusiastic: you have to show them you care. There is no point being half-hearted.
* Be consistent: you have got to keep them going.
* Personalise it, and give it a competitive edge: boys like competitions.
MEET THE STARS OF THE SQUAD
Mentor Danielle Angel, 16
"You are responsible for how they behave in the classroom, how much they listen to what the teacher says.
"We check they are not struggling to keep up because they have forgotten to write things down or tell the teacher if they have found things difficult.
"The mentors are definitely competing."
...and her mentee, Grant Cheadle, 12
"Last year I was underachieving quite a bit in some subjects. This year I think I'm doing quite well. I'm being driven by the competition against other people. It makes you want to win, and it's good fun.
"I got into the top five or six and a letter went home. My parents were really proud of me and praising me.
"My mentor is a real help, checking my planner to make sure I'm doing my homework and encouraging me.
"I think knowing what the problem is so I can face it is helpful. I want to be a solicitor when I grow up, so I'll definitely need GCSEs and A-levels."
Jack Cook, 12
"It helps me to concentrate. It gives me the courage to finish all my work and helps me not get distracted. It's the goals and my mentor that do that.
"I've been at the top of the table once. It was fun. My mum and dad are proud of me. I think I'd like to do GCSEs now - the basics, and art, drama and music. And I might want to do A-levels."
Sam Allen, 12
"I've been second a couple of times. I'm better in school now. I understand the teachers' points of view and how they feel about everything if they feel I am being a bit naughty.
"I want to win the competition. My mentor's really helped and so has Miss Pantling. I would like to do better and I think I will now, even after this finishes. I want to be a builder so I need to get good results."