It's cool to be bright
Long before it hit the headlines, deputy head John Ryder was bothered by the underperformance of boys in the classroom. Over the course of a dozen years and a succession of different administrations, he had contemplated why it was that boys did so badly in comparison with girls.
At his school, The Boswells School, in Chelmsford, there certainly has been a discrepancy between the sexes. Last year's GCSE results revealed 71 per cent of girls gaining five A-C grades compared with just 51 per cent of boys. In some subjects, such as English, the contrast was even more stark. Here, just 45 per cent of boys got one of the top grades compared with 90 per cent of girls.
"I had been conscious of the situation for 12 years but it was really the pressure from the publication of exam results that focused my mind on the problem," admits Mr Ryder, the deputy head.
"I decided that if we were going to improve our results then we'd have to get our boys to perform rather better. I'd had enough of talking, the time had come to do something about it."
He formed a trio with colleagues David Morrish, head of Year 10, and Richard May, head of English, and launched a crusade aimed at encouraging boys to work harder.
"We came up with 10 strategies which were as practical as possible and decided to try them all on the basis of 'who knows which would succeed?' " Their campaign included special seating plans - forcing boys and girls to sit beside each other in class; a mentoring scheme by staff for under-achieving boys; peer counselling by sixth-form students; and, most innovative of all, a literacy evening for parents of the area's four-year-olds, seven years before they could expect to see the children at Boswells.
"Literacy patterns are set when children are about seven," says Mr Ryder. "If they are behind at that age, they are always going to struggle. We can wring our hands and say: 'What can we do about it when they're not even at our school yet?' Or we can try to do something about it."
After consultation with the six feeder primaries in the area, Boswells contacted parents (particularly fathers) whose children hadn't yet arrived at primary school. Their presence was requested at an evening to tackle the problem of under-achievement. More than 200 parents responded and arrived at Boswells to be told not to buy their children televisions for their bedrooms, or allow sons to think reading was something only women did.
"The warning about literacy sent a ripple through the crowd of parents, " says Mr May. "But in the second half we encouraged them with practical strategies. The evening was such a success that we are now planning another with the parents of eight-year-olds in primary schools."
Meanwhile, among the 14 and 15-year-olds at Boswells, further strategies are now in place. About 15 under-achievers (all boys) were selected from Year 9 and allocated peer counsellors from the school's sixth form.
Mr Morrish says: "We chose students from the sixth form who had some street cred and who themselves had often been in trouble for not working hard and paired them up with the Year 9s."
The pairs met three or four times within a formal setting over the year and were encouraged to become friends.
"The idea was to get the pupil to see his work from a different perspective, be more interested in his personal performance, organise his time better and not leave it all too late," he says.
Daniel Forster, 18, was partnered with Tom Grantham, 14. Daniel was keen to take part because it would look good on his UCAS form, and not being a straight-A student himself he wanted the opportunity to tell Tom where he'd gone wrong. He says: "We didn't really know each other and it was difficult at first. Tom isn't doing as well as he could because he's going out too much, but it's hard for me to tell him to stop."
Tom is enthusiastic all the same. "I was well up for it. A lot of the teachers were getting on my back and this was a bit of a change instead of people saying the same old thing. This was more personal, but Daniel knew his position. He told me things without sounding like my dad."
When Tom and his peers moved into Year 10, they were introduced to a fresh counselling scheme: mentoring. Underachievers were again targeted and invited to pick any member of Boswells' 96 staff to be their mentor.
Mr Ryder says: "I told the staff about the scheme from the headteacher to the PE teacher and asked them to come and see me if they were not happy about taking part. Surprisingly nobody did."
Mentors met their pupils on both a formal and informal basis to discuss work, homework deadlines and any other problems. Mr Ryder was himself picked.
Barry Callaghan, 15, chose maths teacher Cheryl King. "I've known her for a long time. She's very kind and she understands me. I can't really ask if I don't understand something in class, but now if I have problems I can go and see her whenever I want.
"In class, people distract you and want you to muck about. It's cool to do a bit of work but if you work hard they call you a boffin or a poof. I want to be a pilot in the RAF and I've realised that if you don't do any work, you don't get anywhere in life. Ms King told me I've got it in me to do well - I've just got to get it out."
There seem to be benefits on both sides. "I felt privileged and special to have been chosen," says Cheryl King. "It made me feel really good about myself. Barry and I sit down and have lunch together and talk about his work. He has an organisational problem, so we look at his deadlines and the strategies we are going to apply. I think pupils need someone special who is on the outside, who isn't their tutor."
Mr Ryder accepts that mentoring may need to be expanded to alter boys' attitude towards schoolwork. Many in Year 10 currently feel there is no reason to work hard. Fifteen-year-old Dean Clarke is such a boy. "I do what I have to do. I do the tasks set and I don't do any extra," he says. "I'm influenced by my friends, I want to do what they do."
Brett Ayling, also 15, agrees. He wants to go into the armed forces but has no idea what qualifications are involved: "Everyone talks in class, so I talk and don't get my work done, but I think I do enough."
His friend Mark Beaver says: "If you have a strong teacher taking the class, then they'll make you work to the best of your ability. But if it's a weak teacher, you don't push yourself because they can't do anything about it. "
Ben Emslie sums up why boys at Boswells stick to the middle ground. "People who do not work and do badly are teased for being thick but those who work really hard are called boffs."
By contrast, girls at the school nurture a deep desire to do well and feel miserable when they get low marks. Muriel Kingsley, who is in Year 10, says she works hard because she "wants to achieve something and if I've done my work half-heartedly and don't get a good mark I feel I've let myself down. I have no idea what I want to do when I leave school which means I have to work twice as hard."
Fourteen-year-old Anna Kirkby wants to be a physiotherapist. "I try extra hard in PE and science. If I go down a grade in a subject I feel really upset, and if I do well and get a certificate, then I feel really proud and rush home and show my mum - I can't imagine a boy doing that."
Mr Ryder is well aware of the difference in attitude between boys and girls but he believes the school may be able to change it. He has created an achievement board in the school's entrance hall to allow pupils to celebrate publicly successes such as winning sporting championships.
"Often boys don't like to be seen to be successful," he says. "But I believe it depends on the ethos of the school and whether they are used to celebrating success. We have told the staff to be as positive as possible in class as boys really need praise versus criticism in a ratio of 5:1."
Achievement notes have also been introduced in the staffroom so if teachers hear of a pupil winning a fishing competition or something similar, the success can be passed on to the head of year to read out in the weekly assembly.
None of the teachers is certain about whether the crusade will prove successful and all are rather unsure of how to evaluate it. So far, Mr Morrish has noticed a slight improvement in the progress reports on his Year 10 pupils and fewer than usual are being put on report. But each teacher knows that the acid test will be Year 10's GCSE results in a year's time.
John Ryder summarises: "It's difficult to evaluate, but we'd be disappointed if the boys didn't improve their GCSE results - and if we didn't start to close the gap between the boys and the girls."