In pursuit of a gender balance

20th October 2006 at 01:00
Hawick High is unusual among Scottish schools. Its boys aim high and are bucking the national trend in outperforming girls in Standard grades.

Meanwhile, its girls have had low expectations in a community dominated by masculine culture. Douglas Blane reports on its Girls of Ambition initiatives

The exam performance of boys is a serious concern in Scotland's schools. Girls have been out-performing them in recent years and a variety of reasons for this have been suggested, from feminisation of the curriculum to peer pressure, learning styles and too many female teachers.

One school is bucking this national trend. At Hawick High, in the Scottish Borders, boys have gained better results than girls for at least five years, beating them in 11 out of 18 Standard grade subjects in 2005.

"There was a big push nationally to raise boys' attainment," says the depute headteacher, Alan Williamson. "We didn't need that. Instead, we needed to raise our girls' attainment."

Central to the school's efforts is its Girls of Ambition working group, a mix of staff, parents and pupils chaired by Mr Williamson. They are a key component in its three-year plan, as a School of Ambition, to raise aspirations and expectations, improve attainment and achievement, develop a can-do culture and provide pupils with skills for life.

"To accomplish all that, we had to do something about our girls," says Mr Williamson.

At first, the staff were puzzled. "Teachers said we must be wrong. It has taken time to convince them our girls are doing less well than they should be, both nationally and compared to our boys."

After raising awareness of the problem, the next task tackled by the working group was to find reasons for the girls' under-performance. Pupil confidence and expectations seemed to lie at the heart of it, says Mr Williamson.

"Our kids grow up in a culture that has always celebrated male achievement.

We have strong traditions, like rugby and the Common Riding (celebrating capturing the colours from English raiders in 1514).

"Employment in the town is another factor. Until recently, girls left school and went straight into low status jobs in the textile mills, where they were paid a lot less than the men."

The tendency, therefore, was for Hawick girls' expectations to be rather low, socially, academically and in terms of careers.

Hawick boys, on the other hand, tend to be "super-confident", he says. No fewer than 54 former pupils have played rugby for Scotland, and one is now Minister for Education in the Scottish Executive. Strong role models for girls are harder to find.

Beki Nichol, an S5 pupil and one of four girls in the Girls of Ambition working group, says: "I was surprised when they told us our girls weren't doing well enough. Shocked, in fact."

Research among the pupils and parents uncovered several factors for this beyond the dominant masculine culture locally, she says. "There were differences across departments in school and in some with purely male teachers, the girls might not be doing as well. Not enough was being done around the school to celebrate girls' achievements. And seating arrangements in classes are important."

Wider research shows that boys do well when sitting beside girls, but there is a cost and it is the girls who pay it, explains art teacher Evelyne Law, a member of the working group who recently attended a national conference on female achievement.

"They exert a calming influence on the boys, but the girls then tend to take more of a back-seat role and don't put forward their own ideas. A far better arrangement is two girls then two boys, rather than girl, boy."

This is also the arrangement that Hawick High's girls preferred and tended to adopt if given the choice. "When we asked why girls liked sitting with girls, they said it was because they wanted to work and the boys wouldn't concentrate," says Sandy Wilson, the principal teacher of physical education and another member of the working group.

The PE department, which might be expected to perpetuate a masculine sporting culture, does well for girls in terms of exam results. The reason, Mr Wilson believes, is that PE teachers, by training and experience, are conscious of the differing preferences and abilities of the sexes.

"We have always been very aware of the gender issue. We structure our classes so that girls are compared to girls rather than boys, for instance.

We have a fair number of all-girl classes, which the girls like and do well in.

"I think PE departments in general are more aware than other subjects of the need to match their teaching to girls or boys."

Hawick High has now moved from research to action in its efforts to raise achievement. These are organised under three broad themes, says Mr Williamson: * develop leadership;

* transform teaching and learning; and

* enhance pupil motivation, confidence and self-esteem.

"That last one is the key and the one we knew least about when we began. So it is the most interesting, as well as the most relevant, to our Girls of Ambition programme.

"There were obvious things we could do, and have done, under the other themes: leadership courses, Assessment is for Learning, improve information technology facilities. But our knowledge of how you raise girls' confidence has grown over the past year from the work we have done in school and their own experiences on the projects they've taken part in."

Together, these have shown that girls' expectations and confidence can be raised, if conscious efforts are made to do so and if girls are placed in situations where they work in teams and on their own initiative, allowing their abilities to be explored and their limits to be tested and extended.

The school is convinced that in time the girls' attainment, as measured by exam statistics, will rise to match their ambitions.

The message may not be entirely comforting for the town, which might not gain from its daughters' elevated aspirations if they leave.

The creative fashion course at Hawick High has its roots in the time-honoured local textile industry. But the role of the girls who take it is by no means a traditional one, says Aimee Mallin, in S6.

"We design the clothes, model them and we have a big say in how the fashion show is run, including things like lighting, music and advertising. So it is about management as well as creativity.

"All that does great things for your confidence."

So, might she look to use her knowledge in the local industry? "I don't think so. I want to study medicine. I will almost certainly leave Hawick to live and work."


* Better use of noticeboards to celebrate female achievement, among staff and pupils.

* Awards for outstanding female achievement.

* Senior school mentors for P7 and S1 girls.

* Role models from the local community and beyond to coach girls.

* University trips for targeted P7 and S1 girls.

* All departments to consider classroom seating arrangements.

* Consider single-sex groups, sets and classes.

* More emotional intelligence training for staff.

* Time-out zones for girls.

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