Teachers in Cornwall found a novel way of improving boys' English exam results - by using sports psychology
Smuggling a group of 13-year-old boys to a secluded beach house under false pretences is hardly conventional classroom practice. But where standard practice fails, desperate measures are sometimes called for.
This was the reasoning of staff at Looe community comprehensive in Cornwall, where there have been persistent gaps between boys' and girls'
achievement (see box, above).
Teachers realised that standard techniques were not working with the boys and then Mike Keveth, assistant headteacher, saw a television programme about sports psychology.
"Influential members affect the work ethic of a whole sports team," he said. "If a few players have the right attitude, they can move the team forward.
"In the past, we had one year group where all the boys did well. That was because one of the key boys played hard, but also worked hard. The others followed his example."
So Mr Keveth selected 10 pupils from Year 8, all renowned for their unwavering trendiness, and arranged to take them away for two days of simply hanging out at the beach.
His aim was to encourage the boys to reflect on their ambitions and he decided they would spend the time learning a dance routine depicting their hopes for the future.
The improvements since the experiment last summer have been dramatic: 84 per cent of boys achieved level 5 or above in key stage 3 English this year, matching exactly the results among girls.
"We didn't mention dance," said Mr Keveth.
"We knew they wouldn't like that. So we told them there were warm-up activities and team-building. It might be politically incorrect, but I wasn't going to risk the whole project."
"I thought people who danced were all poofs," said Robin Mills, one 14-year-old arbiter of cool. "And I thought I would be rubbish at it.
"But it was really fun in the end. I got a huge adrenalin rush. There was a sense that if we have done this, we can do anything," he said.
Dance lessons were interspersed with video-making sessions in which the boys mixed images of their heroes with footage reflecting their own goals and aspirations.
This, together with the teenagers' dance routines, formed a one-off performance for the whole school.
"I told my friends about the dance performance, and they burst out laughing," said Elliot Kelly, 14. "I used to think dancing was for girls.
But now I know it's not just ballet.
"A lot of my friends look up to me. My attitude has changed, so theirs might, too," he added.
And it was not simply the boys' attitude to dance that changed.
"I used to muck around in lessons," said Elliot. "I didn't listen much. But I want to be a dance animator, and if I want to do that, I have to do well at school."
Mr Keveth is keen to point out the complementary strategies implemented by the English staff to achieve the improvement in boys' results.
But the effect of the dance project alone is undeniable.
"The adulation from the audience at the performance, particularly the girls, really helped the boys' self-esteem.
"We dug the boys out of their comfort zone, and they had to work very, very hard to meet our demands. Success like that drives people on," he said.
HOW THE GAP HAS CLOSED
Pupils gaining level 5 or above in KS3 English:
2000 Boys 55 per cent
Girls 72 per cent
2001 Boys 54 per cent
Girls 89 per cent
2002 Boys 30 per cent
Girls 75 per cent
2003 Boys 53 per cent
Girls 71 per cent
2004 Boys 84 per cent
Girls 84 per cent
PUT SPORTS STARS' TECHNIQUES ON THE TIMETABLE
Many of the performance-boosting techniques used by sporting heroes can be applied throughout the curriculum, according to Steve Ward, sports performance coach and former PE teacher
Mr Ward, who coaches professional and amateur sports teams, believes that encouraging children to be successful on the sports field gives them a sense of their own potential.
He said: "When people feel good about themselves, they tend to perform better generally. If your confidence is high, you are willing to take risks.
"There are key skills which, if taught through sport, can help in English, maths, or in a driving test. It is not about making pupils more intelligent, but it boosts confidence in all areas."
These skills, says Mr Ward, include:
* Commitment to personal excellence, rather than comparing your performance with that of others.
* Giving 100 per cent effort.
* Being positive to yourself and others, because if you are thinking negatively, you will perform negatively.
* Setting simple, short-term goals, so that you achieve tangible results.
* Visualising yourself doing something, before you try to do it.
* Concentration and emotional management, so that you recognise emotional states and move on more quickly.