After more than 20 years as a teacher, John Lloyd thinks he might have found a way to keep pupils interested.
This year, my Foundation exam results were the best ever, despite the fact that the Lothian school I work in is set in a deprived area. In a class of more than 20, only one had a Foundation 6 grade, and all the rest attained a 4 or 5 - one boy actually gained a 3. And I am convinced the improvement was due to some football wall posters and discussions on TV soaps like Neighbours.
About 18 months ago, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, bemoaned the fact that many boys modelled their behaviour on characters in the TV programme Men Behaving Badly. They liked to play the fool.
Girls are generally expected to do better at every stage of education.There is not a great deal of research on the reasons for this, as yet, but most of the school curriculum is based on the need to process information and girls are usually happier to read than boys. There is also a considerable difference in the concentration spans of the sexes - boys succumb to the mentality that it is not "cool" to be seen as a swot, they are very easily discouraged. Then they do badly, we expect less of them, and we end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is no surprise that many students in my Foundation class, and the bottom set second year, are immature, non-academic boys. Boys are much more likely to play truant and seldom take part in extra-curricular activities or, indeed, chat informally to teachers in the way girls do.
If we are being honest, teachers frequently anticipate their S3 or S4 Foundation class with all the warmth the inhabitants of Iona or Lindisfarne must have welcomed the Vikings. An hour seems to last four, they come ill-equipped to class, and some struggle to cope with the simplest work. The boys cannot usually concentrate for more than five minutes, literally, as investigations by Peter Downes, former head of Hinchingbrooke school in Cambridgeshire, revealed last year - they constantly require the teacher's attention.
The boys are more likely to swear and shout abuse, and they are convinced their unruly behaviour appeals to adolescent girls who, in any case, are more mature. Teachers know that boys respond to different styles of teaching, learn in different ways, are probably best assessed by different methods and that they respond to short bursts of information.
Against that backdrop, in a large class with very few girls where the boys' body language was invariably hostile and their attitudes negative, the talk was of football, sex and TV soaps. So I decided in my own small way to channel their obsession into my subject, modern studies.
For too long, my classroom had appeared boring with its UN, EU and Third World posters, world maps and party political posters (the Conservative one almost touched the ceiling, it got vandalised so often). I decided the time had come to make the room more like a teenager's bedroom, ie warmer, less threatening, more informal and appealing. I know this conjures up an image of Harry Enfield's awful teenager "Kevin" with a roomful of teenage and pop magazines, slippers on the floor, a mouldy cheeseburger, pizza, Coke can, CDs lying about in an untidy midden, but I am only referring to the walls.
So down came the vandalised posters and - with the help of my S3 and S4 students - up went pop posters of Steps, 911, B*witched, Boyzone, Corrs, Aqua, Sash and Britney Spears, and football posters of Hearts, Hibernian, Livingston, Celtic, Rangers and, as a Pars fan, Dunfermline. Suffice to say, that in the period since, not one of them has been vandalised.
I then broke up my lesson into really short bursts of about five or six minutes each. We worked off the board, or dictated notes or a worksheet, and then interspersed that with discussion or analysis of the previous evening's football highlights or TV soap. As a freelance football writer, I did not find this difficult.To keep the girls onside (and some boys too), one repeats the trick, except you mention their favourite TV soap opera, which in the case of my class was clearly Neighbours.
Some purists will argue that this is not the way to teach a modern studies course, but you can actually take a theme from the Australian programme and adapt it to your course. With Neighbours for example, when the character Helen Daniels was staying with Phil Martin's family, you could examine an issue relevant to an "Elderly" topic, such as what would be pleasantunpleasant about a grandparent staying with your family? The "Trade Union" topic had a link with the characters Harold and Madge organising a picket line outside Lou Carpenter's pub; and with Lou standing for mayor and Bill's first ever vote at 18, our "Politics" topic was similarly enhanced. From time to time characters such as Toadie do not have a job, and his decline in living standards fitted our "Unemployed" topic neatly.
After the two years, most of the students really did have a different attitude, exhibited positive behaviour, ceased the verbal abuse, were more motivated and worked harder - and some ended up coming on my extra-curricular trips.
Some staff have made it clear that they do not like my walls bedecked with football and pop posters, but they are welcome to their posters of dead scientists, mathematical formulae, French irregular verbs and bare walls. The pupils - even sixth year classes - seem to appreciate
Recently, the headteacher came into my room, as my Foundation class had their heads down, working hard. The class was so calm, he actually apologised in case he had interrupted a test. The class knew they had to get so much completed if they were to listen to the current number one hit in the last four minutes of the period, and no one wanted to let the side down. After 20 years of teaching, I might have finally cracked it.