Not for wimps
That boys do not do as well as girls at secondary school is well known. Andy Raymer, head of Matthew Moss School in Rochdale, sees the problem first hand. "It's a clear issue, there's lots of evidence nationally, and it's the same here."
It is, he feels, a question of attitude. "Girls manage successfully to mix a satisfactory teenage social life with the demands of school. Boys seem less able to manage both - a boy can either be socially acceptable, or he can be studious - a 'boff' - and thus a social pariah."
The effect is clear in Matthew Moss's exam results. The school has now had three sets of GCSE results since it opened, and in each year there has been a consistent and noticeable difference between the scores of boys and girls. Deputy head John Belfield points also to evidence from teaching groups. "Boys don't figure so strongly in the higher sets - a top maths set might typically be two-thirds girls and one-third boys."
The challenge, then, as Andy Raymer sees it, is to motivate boys and help them to feel that school work is worthwhile and socially acceptable.
An important part of the school's response has been to enlist the help of Geoff Hannan, an education consultant who specialises in gender issues. At the core of his work is the belief that much of what goes on in classrooms favours the reflective, language-rich approach of girls. "Boys are significantly poorer on things like sequential planning and the organisation of written materials. "
Geoff Hannan runs sessions for parents and in-service training for teachers, focusing on classroom methods that play more to the strengths of boys. "Boys need a sequential, step-by-step approach to learning. And they're not as good at speculative work in science as girls are; they need more groundwork. "
Adding to the pressure to do something is the fact that Matthew Moss has for two years run a project for girls - Young Women Managers of the Future - aimed at raising aspirations. Seeing this, the boys were asking for a project of their own. But the focus needed to be different.
As Andy Raymer puts it: "Girls underestimate their potential. Boys, on the other hand, tend to be, as they say, 'all mouth and trousers', and we have to help them to see that if they really want all the benefits of being in good jobs, then the route may not be as simple as they think."
Last school year Matthew Moss put together a group of 20 Year 9 boys elected by their peers, four from each form, and involved them over the whole year with people in the working world outside school. Each spent about two days a month out of school, working with a different adult each time. The idea was that the boys would see people, usually managers, in action - working hard, planning, organising themselves. (Because it lasted a whole year, the programme was very different from typical work experience which sends a pupil out of school for a limited one-off period.) The thinking was that, partly by observation and partly by being taken seriously by their mentors, the boys would see what being busy and organised at work really means. Then, as a further step, they would realise that perhaps being hard-working and well-organised in school is not such a wimpish idea after all.
The programme of visits was supported by weekly discussions in PSE sessions, picking up the lessons learned, and giving the boys practice in reporting back and recounting their feelings. The culmination of it all was an evening in July for parents and visitors at which the boys presented their experiences and findings.
The adults from the six businesses involved played their parts with enthusiasm. John Patterson, a senior manager with the Catering and Cleaning Services of Rochdale Council, took one of the boys straight into the hard reality of a negotiating session with trade union representatives. "It was a fairly heated topic," Mr Patterson explains, "and we were a bit concerned about the colour of the language."
Another manager from the same department picked up Kashaf Sheikh at his home at 6.45am to attend a breakfast meeting. There were five further meetings as the day went on. "I was surprised," says Kashaf. "I had always thought that managers sat drinking coffee and bossing people about."
The boys understood the underlying purpose of the project perfectly well. "The idea was to give us a kick up the bum so we'd do something with their lives, " says Adrian Godding.
So was the kick effective? "Of course!" says Adrian. "I've been taught to sort myself out, and I'm more reliable. And I'm not afraid to stand up and speak before a crowd now."
Pupil Mike Bickerdike feels his classroom confidence has improved. "Normally when the teacher asks a question, you think that you know the answer but you're slow to put your hand up. Now I put my hand up much more."
Steve Jolly, a teacher involved in the project, told me that Mike (who admits to having been "a bit mischievous") is one of a number of boys whose attitude has improved. "He's a better student - better organised and better at planning. He went through a patch of wanting to be Jack the Lad, and he could have misdirected himself. His parents and we knew that he had it in him if we could keep him on track."
Pupils in this year's Year 9 are about to start on their own Boys Are Bright programme. The school wants to improve on last year's experience when the emphasis was on managers as role models. Steve Jolly wants to discuss working with people in other sorts of job, a point which John Patterson picks up. "There's this perception in Britain of managers as an elite group, specially recruited, whereas one of our best senior managers was once a refuse collector. "
Mr Patterson is clearly in tune with the project's philosophy, and likens it to similar iniatives in industry. "Rochdale is interested in equal opportunities, and this was what you might call a lateral look at it. We also have our own 'stepping out' programme for manual workers and cleaners where we give them confidence and let them know they have skills. We need inquisitive, assertive people. If you can start that sort of thing off at school then we benefit."
Mike Matthews, manager of the Rochdale Shopping Centre, is also an enthusiastic partner. He gave Matthew Moss boys some demanding tasks helping him to promote the centre to customers and prospective tenants. "I think they were surprised by the type of stuff that goes on, especially on the planning and marketing side."
He commends the project to other schools. "It's something I will definitely do again. A lot of businesses like ourselves want to spend time and money on the local community and if other schools could run an initiative like it, then it could be very beneficial."
One obvious limitation is that it involves only 20 boys out of a year group of 70. Andy Raymer is aware of this. "It went well, but where do you go next? To extend it to more boys would risk losing the 'specialness' that makes it valuable."
Part of the answer is the expectation that the boys involved will become key role models within the year group. And in the longer term, this project will be seen as a broader, multi-faceted approach to the twin challenges of under-aspiring girls and under-achieving boys, involving work in and out of school, and a careful look at teaching and learning styles and the curriculum itself. "The national curriculum provides breadth and balance by the bucketful," says Andy Raymer. "Relevance - where, how and to whom - is a harder one."