'Lab rats' revel as results are raised

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
An experiment in separate English classes for boys and girls has led to better grades for the boys and less disaffection among the girls, Elizabeth Buie says

At St Columba's High in Gourock, a venture into single-gender classes has paid off, with boys and girls exceeding expectations at Standard grade and beyond.

The ground-breaker was Linda McGlinchey, principal teacher of enterprise and citizenship but also an English teacher. Three years ago she took on the daunting task of motivating 30 S2 boys to raise their performance in English. They had been identified as having potential but being unlikely to achieve 5-14 level E.

So the school created two single-gender classes. The girls' class was a smaller group of 17; their academic ability was lower, but their main problems were poor self-esteem and disaffection.

"The idea grew out of national testing," says Mrs McGlinchey. "We had noticed that a lot of boys were very good at reading but were not achieving in writing. So we started with a second year class of 30 boys who had this discrepancy.

"The short-term aim was to work on their creative writing so there was a balance between reading and writing. We got them all through level E," she says.

By the end of S2, the group had become an entity, although still perceived as boys who were intelligent but under-achieving. The single-sex classes were, therefore, continued for Standard grade.

Mrs McGlinchey concentrated on teaching the boys how to structure their essays and used mind-mapping to help them.

In terms of managing the class, she was always careful to keep them fully informed of what she was trying to do, she says.

"Because they knew it was new and fresh, they were ready to ask why we were doing something. When we were doing texts, they would network with pupils in Credit classes to see if they were doing the same texts.

"The boys were aware they were lab rats. The point was that we were trying something to help them and that's what helped us."

At the beginning of S3, they asked: "What kind of class is this? CreditGeneral or GeneralFoundation?" Her response was: "It is the boys'

class, whatever class you make it." Had she told them that it was a GeneralFoundation class, they would have thought they could all just sit back. As it was, she "gave them permission to be clever", as she puts it.

"Once they got down to work, the class tended to be noisy but, if you listened, they were arguing about what they should be arguing about." Part of the key was to do good literature with them. "It's like giving them good food," Mrs McGlinchey says.

Her first move was to discard the texts that tend to appeal more to girls.

Once she had the measure of the boys, they embarked on examining writer's craft. The class looked at Seamus Heaney and tribalism, Robert Louis Stevenson and Franz Kafka. The boys wanted to try Shakespeare, so she chose Julius Caesar.

"The perception is that real men don't like poetry and don't do the touchy feely thing. That is not true. Boys are very emotional but you need to pick the emotions you are discussing.

"They might not have been as happy doing Romeo and Juliet, but we talked about what bravery was and honour I things they felt perfectly safe to give opinions about," she says.

In S4 they studied T. S. Eliot's "The Journey of the Maji" and the boys were "brilliant", they understood all the allusions, says Mrs McGlinchey.

The boys have always known they were part of an experiment; in fact the idea of being like lab rats quite intrigued them. One of the boys says:

"Out of all the other classes, this is the one which involves a test of character as well as the ability to do the work.

"The course has improved my reading, writing and spelling skills dramatically.

"When I was told I would be in this class, I wasn't too sure about going. I changed my mind once I listened to what we could achieve as a class as well as a person. I thought it would be worthwhile and I was right.

"I don't think I would have achieved as much in another class as I have in this one. You are asked to do more than in any other class. This is harder work but it lets you see how much you are able to do.

"The course is a great chance."

At the start of S2, 25 of the 30 boys were put forward for Standard grade.

In 2004, 14 gained Credit passes (one 1 and 13 2s), 10 gained General passes and one pupil, a severe dyslexic, gained a Foundation pass. In S5, 15 did the Intermediate 2 course and 14 passed at C or above; 10 opted, against advice, to sit Higher English and seven succeeded, achieving one B, two C and four D awards.

The girls also did better in their exams than anticipated when entering S2.

Seven got a Credit pass at Standard grade, eight General passes and two Foundation passes. At the end of S4, half that class left school and went on to further education.

Of those who stayed on, all who did Intermediate 2 passed; the two who, against advice, did Higher, failed.

Last year there was no S4 gender split because there was not a large enough group of boys considered in need of the initiative, but there is this year.

Decisions are dictated by demographics, gender mix and the performance of each year group.

Having seen the successes, now the maths department is contemplating single-gender classes too.

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