Looking after Jamie

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
Boys can do better given the right attention in Year 7. Michael Barber and Jim Graham report. Much of what is being written and said about the differences in performance between boys and girls seems now to imply that girls have advantages which make their higher success rate inevitable. This was implicit in Panorama's programme last autumn "The Future is Female", and the same sense of predetermination is to be found elsewhere on both sides of the Atlantic.

Observation of the schools in which the Keele Successful Schools Project has worked suggests that this is not the case. There may well be a predisposition in favour of girls but it can be countered by appropriate management strategies.

It is not difficult to find boys succeeding; they aren't always outshone and several schools known to us consistently produce equally good results from both sexes. Meanwhile there are other schools which, equally consistently, have even larger differences between girls' and boys' results than the national average. There are clear differences of ethos, culture and sometimes policy which relate to the GCSE variations.

To the observer there is no doubt that these variations are, at least in part, the result of "school effect".

Before looking forward, it is worth considering the past. It is not many years since the accepted wisdom was that girls got off to a better start but that the boys caught up when they matured in their teens. It was also assumed that the boys would do better in "boys' subjects" like maths and physics. That was the expectation and that was what happened. Indeed we know of one school where it still is the case and there are probably others. But the decisive factor in such cases is that the girls were performing below their potential.

It is possible that a similar factor is currently operating in reverse. If one was to speculate about a cause, perhaps we should be looking at the new uncertainty surrounding the role of the male in modern society. This might well be a factor in reducing expectations and self esteem among boys at a crucial stage in their lives. Meanwhile their sisters are encouraged to perform well, seeing careers open up to them which they know were denied to previous generations.

Whatever the reasons, boys and girls arrive in secondary schools with differing levels of achievement and, as the Keele surveys have shown, differing degrees of rapport with their schools. Maybe primary schools can change this in time, but it is not appropriate to wait for that to happen. The children are with us now and need a response.

It is easier to pose the problem and to observe that some schools have solved it than it is to describe what needs to be done. None of the schools which we have studied can say with confidence that one or another policy has produced the equality which has appeared. Nor do they all fit to a clear blueprint - some serve middle-class suburbs or country areas, others are urban and relatively deprived. None of the schools has a female head and often there is not a woman in a leading position.

There are, however, two features which are common to the schools we have been considering. First, they are all schools with a high level of success both academic and non-academic. So as far as GCSE is concerned, it is a matter of having led the boys up to standards much more widely reached by girls. They are not schools which have achieved equality by holding down the girls.

The second feature is that in varying degrees (and by varying methods) they have solved the "Jamie" problem.

Jamie (or it might be Sharon, but not as often) is now in Year 9. He had a successful primary schooling and joined the school with a group of friends in Year 7. The first year seemed to go well: he settled in quickly with old and new friends and enjoyed school; he was reported to have tackled new work quite satisfactorily. Year 8 passed in much the same way. Occasionally a subject teacher would express doubts as to whether he was reaching his potential. Then Jamie would always work a little harderIuntil the teacher turned his or her attention elsewhere.

Now in Year 9 he is well regarded, when people remember to think about him. He is never in trouble, is never picked out for special commendation, puts his hand up frequently - when others have already done so, always hands in adequate homework. He is civil and will smile at the teacher at suitable moments.

In fact Jamie is seriously under-achieving. He never takes any work home; the attentive appearance in class is a skilful cover for extensive day-dreaming. Except for the important business of keeping out of any limelight he is not exerting himself at all, and is performing well below his potential.

However, he is so successful at his avoidance tactics that when he comes to the national tests or other exams he comfortably confirms his teachers' expectations.

Whose job is it to spot this? Over coffee in the staffroom, individual subject teachers in a small school might solve his problems amongst themselves. In larger schools it is unrealistic to think that the informal network will pick him up. There has to be someone with the time, opportunity and responsibility to identify the Jamies of this world and there are many more of them than you might think.

What is more, this needs to be done in Year 7, or whenever the fall-off starts, if the repair job is to be done well.

The uncomfortable truth about this is that we are talking about the need for one-to-one tutorial attention. That is hard to organise and expensive in terms of teacher time. It can be done and is done in those schools we have looked at where the boys and girls perform equally.

To conclude with an emphasis on individual attention very properly stops talk of "boys" and "girls" as if they were two discrete and homogeneous groups. It can be convenient to use the generic words but any solution must deal with all those who are performing below their potential, whatever their sex. There are likely to be more Jamies than Sharons but the necessary strategy will be directed to them all and not to one sex.

What, in the end, does Jamie need when we have successfully identified him and given him one-to-one attention from his tutor? Most probably he will need to be made to feel that if he does exert himself he will gain success and, most important, that there will be someone there to recognise it and encourage him. He may well need a lot of support. If he has a settled image of himself as a moderate performer he will need a lot of stick and carrot to change - it will be a chancy business to launch himself into a different personna. In any case, what will his mates say?

In our view Jamie's story clearly underlines the need for Year 7 tutors to build up a full knowledge of their charges and to stay with the same group for as long possible.

Michael Barber is professor of education at Keele and Jim Graham is an associate researcher working closely with a number of schools in the south of England

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