No quick fix for the boys

10th June 2005 at 01:00
There is no simple solution to the underachievement of young males.

writes Gary Wilson

How disappointed the team from Homerton college, Cambridge, must have been with the publicity thus far afforded to the eagerly awaited report of their four-year research into boys' underachievement. Within hours of its publication, the oh-so predictable headlines began to emerge.

This important report, sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills, prompted an instant rush to judgement by the headline writers:

"Boys-only classes will improve lagging results, says report", the Guardian said, while the Mirror declared: "All-boy lessons boost results".

Newspapers across the world chimed in: "Boys better in single-sex classes" (the Times of Pakistan) and "Study backs single-sex classes" (the New Zealand Herald).

Indeed, wherever the report was written about, the story was the same. So much impact from so little evidence. Following on from a telephone survey of 31 schools, which "revealed a confused scene", the report refers to the findings in just three schools. All three were high schools in the same type of socio-economic setting, all-white it would appear.

At one school the experiment was only in mathematics and all the boys were "very negative" about it. While the report does include some positive comments from some pupils and teachers, it also cites "the concern that aggressively macho behaviour was exacerbated simply through a concentration of numbers, with a subsequent worsening of boys' behaviour".

The report issues a serious health warning about all-boy groups that has barely been reported: "There are obvious dangers here, of the creation and perpetuation of stereotypical macho environments." In my book, this is not so much a health warning but simply a reason not to go there at all.

With headlines boldly declaring that the quick-fix answer has been found, how much notice will be taken of the rest? How many will read of the ideas related to the effective use of shared reading? How much notice will be taken of the idea of using peer leaders (key leaders) to actively promote positive learning behaviours? How many will miss the wide-reaching evidence, supported by much recent work, for the need to engage boys in speaking and listening activities such as partnered talk and drama-based strategies, prior to getting them to write? Where will the headlines be about the need to engage boys in talking about and reflecting upon their reading? The vital need to address the impact of peer pressure on boys is given coverage in the report but so far at least has received no coverage.

All of these issues I can heartily endorse from my own experience and all I can hope is that they will be given wide consideration and hopefully, even, headlines of their own.

The problem with the boys' achievement issue is that the world has been seeking a simple cause and a straightforward answer. The bottom line is that the causes of boys' underachievement are not simple or straightforward, neither, therefore, can there be an easy solution.

In my work over the past 12 years, I believe that I have identified around 30 significant barriers to boys' learning - inappropriate pupil grouping is just one of them (setting). Perceptions of the use and value of writing, lack of independence prior to starting school, the presentation of a tough male macho stereotype by some schools or by their local community are others. Add peer pressure, perceptions of reading as a female activity, a lack of positive male role models, the influence of street culture, teacher expectations, and a lack of parental awareness of the issues and you begin to see the complexity of the problem.

Single-sex grouping is neither new, nor is it the answer. Some schools have been virtually running these for years anyway. It is called setting - one sure-fire method of switching off significant numbers of boys. Hands up who wants to teach the bottom set Year 8 humanities group on Friday afternoon? Often three-quarters full of disaffected boys, they are a group nobody relishes.

If we are going to have a debate about pupil grouping and achievement let us have that one, shall we?

How much longer must we continue in education to be so arrogant as to think that young people learn only from adults, or that it is OK to put the linguistically most deprived in the linguistically most deprived environment? As far as the single-sex grouping issue is concerned, do we really want to start along a slippery slope which leads to a worsening of the so-called "laddish culture" that we all despise?

Following this path may significantly lessen the possibility of developing a more caring masculinity in our boys, something many of us have been toiling to produce for some considerable time now. Let us please focus on the massively useful elements of the Homerton report, but first, I'm afraid, we will have to deal with the universal clamour for the quick fix that the media is telling us that we have found.

Gary Wilson is school improvement officer with responsibility for raising boys' achievement at Kirklees local education authority. He is author of "Using the National Healthy School Standard to Raise Boys' Achievement", available from

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