Oh boy!

16th May 1997 at 01:00
It seems to have been a long time coming, but the 21st century is almost here. With more effective medical treatments available, children who are now pupils in schools may live through most of the next 100 years.

As we enter the next millennium it is the under-achievement of boys that has become one of the biggest challenges facing society and schools. Improving their performance should be given the highest priority by the new Government, but not at the expense of girls, whose achievements have improved significantly and should continue to do so.

Alvin Toffler, the American futurologist, said that all education was a vision of the future, and that failure to have a vision was a betrayal of the nation's youth. It is easy to argue this, but not so simple to describe what that future might be. One pressing concern in education today is the need, in a rapidly moving and changing society, to prepare children for work, family and social life. All of these are becoming more demanding and complex.

We live in what is sometimes called a "credential society". Jobs that a few years ago required no formal qualifications now ask for GCSEs. Those that wanted A-levels now recruit graduates. Home and family life are tougher to sustain, as loan sharks and other predators hover round the unwary and unschooled. So far as young people are concerned, the entrance fee to society has gone up substantially.

If 21st century life is ultra dynamic, then personal qualities like flexibility, imagination, drive, the ability to be a positive member of a team, become vital. This extract from the recruitment literature of a major national employer is typical: "We'll be looking for people who can be described as 'flexible'. ..You'll actively seek out new experiences. ..You'll be open-minded and not afraid to challenge the way things are done. Independence is important because in this fast-changing organisation, you may not always have clear paths and procedures to follow."

It is essential that children leave school well-equipped to face an uncertain future. Our national curriculum is about to be revised, with the new version starting in the year 2000. In my book The Cubic Curriculum, I argue that in order to prepare children for uncertainty, the school curriculum must be seen in several dimensions, including the subjects being taught, the methods of teaching and learning, and those qualities and characteristics that make us human, like language, aesthetic, personal and social development. Boys, in particular, are failing to achieve their potential in each of these fields.

During the 1970s in the United Kingdom, more than a million jobs were lost in manufacturing industry alone. Another 1.5 million went in the first five years of the 1980s. The turmoil continued towards the end of the century, and in the first five years of the 1990s, some five million people lost their jobs.

What was notable about these huge losses of traditional forms of employment was that the vast majority of posts that disappeared were unskilled, semi-skilled or barely-skilled. It is true that graduate employment also suffered, but the biggest decline was in areas where machines were brought in to perform the numerous tasks that had previously been carried out by armies of worker ants. Firms that used to employ dozens of boys to load goods on to lorries, replaced them with a couple of fork-lift truck operators. For those with little knowledge or interpersonal skills the prospects became bleak.

Another aspect of higher unemployment was that it appeared to be endemic rather than cyclical. Recessions earlier in the century had been followed by boom times. The order books emptied, but then filled up again, as world or national trading prospects improved. Workers dropped to a three-day week, or lost

their jobs, only to regain exactly the same posts later, often with bonus and overtime payments, as the economy moved into a higher gear. When the cycle stopped it was partly because, in the new automated economy, no employer was going to get rid of two fork-lift trucks and two drivers in order to employ 20 people with large biceps.

If we want to improve significantly the overall national level of achievement for the 21st century, then it is the massive under-achievement of boys that must be tackled vigorously. It is causing a major headache to those who educate them, and the evidence of their relatively low performance is now overwhelming at all stages of education.

Consider just some of the evidence. In the 1970s there was justifable concern about the under-achievement of girls. Many were leaving school at 16 with a portfolio of good O-levels, perfectly able to take A-levels, but not pursuing them. Though predominant in fields like modern languages and literature courses, girls were heavily outnumbered by boys in applications to many other subjects in higher education. They were even denied the opportunity, in some schools, to study technology, or take science to a high level. Quite rightly, sex discrimination legislation outlawed such practices, and teachers gradually became aware of the need to give girls a fair chance.

Now the position has changed dramatically, and girls are outperforming boys on a significant scale. The most recent figures available show the following dire statistics:

* In 1983-84 there was less than a 1 per cent gap in the number of boys (26.3 per cent) and girls (27.2 per cent) who obtained five high grade GCSEs A to C. By 1995-96 the gap had become a gulf, with boys on 39.8 per cent and girls on 49.3 per cent.

* In English at GCSE the difference is huge, with nearly two-thirds of girls (64.4 per cent) achieving a high grade, compared with fewer than half of the boys (46.9 per cent).

* Even in a traditionally "male" area like design and technology, about half the girls (48.6 per cent) get a high grade, compared with a third of the boys (33.1 per cent).

* At A-level, girls overtook boys in the later 1980s. In 1983-84, there were 11.1 per cent of boys obtaining three or more A-levels, but only 9.5 per cent of girls. By 1994-95 the figures were 20.5 per cent for boys and 24.2 per cent for girls.

* Although until recently universities used to have far more male than female students, the position has now been reversed. In 1995-96 there were 453,600 male students enrolled in full-time undergraduate courses, compared with 470,500 females.

The situation is also bad among lower achievers who do not go on to further and higher education. Recently I spoke to employers in a city with high youth unemployment. A number had made special efforts to find work for 16-year-old boys, but discovered too many were virtually unemployable, lacking interest, drive, enthusiasm, or the social skills increasingly necessary in fields where personal relationsh ips are important. The city has a successful football team and some adolescent boys see themselves as achieving status and success through association with that, rather than from their jobs or academic achievements.

The problem has really started much earlier than adolescence, however. As part of the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project at Exeter University, we have been studying the progress of several hundred children around the country aged five to 11. On NFER reading tests, where 100 is the score of the average child, we found that boys began the school year between four and five points behind the girls. At the end of the year the figure had hardly changed.

What was worse, the youngest boys we tested, who were six at the beginning of Year 2, were already several points behind the girls in their classes. They never caught up. In each age group we tested from Year 2 to Year 6, the boys began and ended the year at roughly the same distance behind the girls. They start down, and they remain down.

Trying to explain this sustained disadvantage is not easy. It may be a case of later maturation, as girls in primary schools have traditionally done better than boys in language. Recent research, in which brain activity is scanned during language activities, suggests that the female brain is active in both halves, the male brain predominantly in one. Equally it can be said that lower motivation leads to less time being spent on the task in hand, so less learning takes place.

We studied a target group of six children in each of several classes. There were three boys and three girls, covering high, medium and low ability. Teachers rated the boys significan tly lower than the girls on attitude to reading, ability to concentrate, determination when facing difficulties, productivity in class, self-esteem and social skills. They also estimated the help they received at home to be lower, something the boys themselves confirmed.

Language lies at the heart of learning. Yet in the early years, boys find it hard to make a good start on reading. From their point of view, it is a more female then male activity. Almost all infant teachers are women, and in the Leverhulme Project we found that mothers were much more likely than fathers to read with children at home. Some of the early books they read do not engage the boys, and we discovered that teachers who produced big improvments in reading performance were more likely to match the reading to the pupil, selecting sports or adventure books for those boys who liked such topics.

Behaviour can also be a problem. Boys will sometimes be more disruptive in class than girls. Indeed, they may lose more classroom time because they are sent out of the room or even sent home.

Five times as many boys as girls are permantly excluded from school. In secondary schools, 7,191 boys were excluded in 1994-95 compared with 1,663 girls. The pattern begins even in primary schools, where 1,177 boys were excluded compared with 91 girls.

Even if they can get a job, many of the boys now in school will have to retrain several times during their working lives, and most of them can look forward to many years of good health in their Third Age, so their appetite for learning must stretch way beyond the years of compulsory schooling.

In order to flourish over what could be a very long lifetime, they will need a firm foundation of knowledge, skills, attitudes and forms of behaviour, alongside positive personal characteristics, such as determination, flexibility, imagination. They will also require the social intelligence and ability to pool their strengths with those of their fellows, as well as the independence of mind to act autonomously. This strong combination of personal and intellectual qualities is particularly important, given the massive explosion of knowledge, which continues to gather pace.

If boys are to improve enough to be able to face the next century with confidence, we need a massive and co-ordinated attack on their under-achievement. There are many areas in which action can be taken and I am proposing a 10-point plan.

The education of all our children to their full potential is said to be our top priority. I repeat that we should not neglect the education for girls when addressing the problems I have identified. However, unless we improve significantly the achievement of boys in our society now, we are storing up immense problems for the whole of the 21st century.


Start early

Boys should be encouraged to attend nurseries, so they make an early start on language activities in particular, and learn to behave well in class.

Help at home

More fathers should help at home, especially with reading and writing, so language is not seen as a purely "female" activity.

Early intervention

There should be skilled individual specialist help for the many boys in infant schools who make a slow start to reading. There have been many success stories of six-year-old boys whose reading improved in the Reading Recovery Programme.

Appeal to boys' interests

Humour, adventure and sport are among the topics that appeal to young boys, so these should be incorporated into what they read wherever possible.

Improve boys' behaviour

Some boys are easily distracted and then, in turn, distract others. Their behaviour in class needs to improve so they spend more time on task.

Raise teacher awareness

When teachers became more aware of girls' under-achievement, results improved. Awareness about boys' poor performance must be raised, not the least amongst boys themselves and their parents, so that trying hard at school is not seen to be "swottish", but normal.

Use new technology

Many young boys like using new technology, such as CD-Roms and virtual reality, and they often concentrate more when they use it.

Involve boys in their own learning

Today's pupils are tomorrow's citizens. They need to be directly involved in improving their own performance, so they can set themselves targets, maintain focus, ask questions of themselves, pick out important information, improve relationships, and know when to ask for help.

Identify "at risk" pupils

Early intervention in the primary school for those falling behind is essential, but there should be another safety net in secondary school, so that boys aged 13, likely to be "at risk" when they leave, are identified and helped.

Redesign key stage 4

We need a co-ordinated programme for 14 to 18-year-olds for the 21st century, in which pupils can choose from a set of what are sometimes called "academic" and "vocational" modules, so that programmes can be tailored to individual needs and interests.

Ted Wragg's book about education for the future, The Cubic Curriculum, will be published by Routledge on May 22. Early next year, the company will also publish Improving Literacy in the Primary School, describing the research findings of the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project

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