Rescuing the lost boys

12th January 2007 at 00:00
White boys from poor families do worse at GCSE than any other group - one reason is that they have no specialist provision. Fran Abrams visits a school which is succeeding against the odds

John has spent the morning carefully crafting a burger, a drink and something green out of plasticine, and now he is displaying them proudly to anyone who cares to look.

"If 100 people come to our restaurant," he explains, "we'll make 30 per cent profit."

Today is an enterprise day at Middleton Technology School in Rochdale and the timetable has been abandoned so pupils can enter a competition in which they plan their own small businesses. To a casual observer, the scene would seem unremarkable - a group of Year 9 pupils throwing themselves with gusto into a project. But the fact that John (not his real name) is so on-task during a day on which his usual structures and routines have disappeared is testament to the success of his school.

John is, in fact, one of a number of boys at this school whose poor behaviour have led them to be singled out for special attention. The school, which sits in an almost exclusively white enclave of this multi-ethnic Lancashire town, employs a variety of specific measures to help raise standards, particularly among boys. And on this evidence, the approach is working.

Ofsted thinks so, too. When inspectors visited in November 2006, they rated Middleton outstanding and said it had bucked the national trend by closing the achievement gap between boys and girls.

Ninety-six per cent of pupils there are white and almost all working class.

Yet more than 80 per cent get five good GCSEs. Of those, this week's league tables showed, 50 per cent also included maths and English. The key, according to Allison Crompton, the headteacher, is consistency. Much of what the school does is simply what any good school would do - but it is done every day, without fail.

"Girls tend to have better qualities in terms of reliability, perseverance and orga-nisation. So that's what we have to work on with these boys. We determine the culture of the school. Inside these gates there are no gangs, no shaved heads, no shoes with white flashings. I can't stress how much difference it makes."

And although Middleton's pupils now achieve results way above the national average - that has not always been the case. In 1990, nine per cent of its pupils reached that level. The gap between boys and girls at GCSE is now just two per cent and among the less able pupils, the boys significantly out-perform the girls.

Nationally, the picture for pupils like these is much more bleak. A report by the Conservative Party's Centre for Social Justice, headed by Iain Duncan Smith, the party's former leader, pointed out that white boys from poor backgrounds did worse at GCSE than almost any other group of pupils.

In 2003, 17 per cent of white British boys who were entitled to free school meals attained five or more good GCSEs.

And new figures seen by The TES show the situation is getting worse, not better. The latest statistical release from the Department for Education and Skills shows that between 2003 and 2006, the gap between the poorest white British boys and their peers from other ethnic groups got wider.

While the proportion of poor Bangladeshi boys getting five good grades rose by more than 12 percentage points, to 48.2 per cent, and of Pakistani boys by almost 10 percentage points to 37.8 per cent, these white boys managed a seven percentage improvement, to 24 per cent. The poorest white British girls fared no better, raising their scores by 6.3 points to 31.3 per cent.

If you compare the performance of the poorest white British boys - that 24 per cent figure - to that of their peers from other ethnic groups, they now lag far behind. Among poorer boys from Chinese families, the proportion getting five good GCSEs is 65 per cent, well above the 52.2 per cent national average for all boys. Among poorer Indian boys, the proportion is 48.3 per cent, and among poorer white non-British boys, including migrants from Eastern Europe, 36.1 per cent.

What is striking, looking at the figures, is the fact that this is not just about being poor. While poverty makes little difference to the achievements at school of some groups, it makes a huge difference to white British children - and particularly to boys.

Among Bangladeshi boys, 50.3 per cent gained five good grades. And the proportion of Bangladeshi boys on free school meals reaching that level is barely any lower, at 48.2 per cent - four percentage points below the national average for boys. Among white British boys, though, the difference is stark - 52.6 per cent of all such boys reached the five GCSE benchmark, compared with 24 per cent of white boys on free school meals - not far short of a 30 per cent gap. Although these figures are for England, the picture in Scotland and Wales is similar.

Of course, a greater proportion of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds are from poor backgrounds and that narrows the gap between the poorest and the whole group. But there are other factors at work.

Dr Ros McLellan, a research associate at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, worked with Middleton Tech-nology School during a four-year research project (see box right) on raising boys' achievement.

She believes working class boys find themselves caught by cultural factors, at home and within their peer groups, that lead them to devalue education.

"There is some research showing that the average number of books in a home is only eight, and in many homes there are none. In that context, it is no surprise that things such as reading are not going on.

"With this group of schools, we were looking at the idea that boys came in needing to assert their identity, and that what was valued in that culture was not what the school was pushing in terms of the need to get exams and grades. It's difficult for boys to balance those two things.

"Middleton was promoting the message that you need qualifications if you want to get on in life, and because the whole set-up of the school was supporting that it was difficult for pupils to opt out of."

So what is the Government doing about the problem? Strangely, little - despite the fact that it is an increasing cause for concern. While there are clear streams of funding for schools that have large numbers of pupils with special needs, for example, or of pupils with English as an additional language, there are none for those whose pupils underachieve because they are white and poor. Specific grants for ethnic minority achievement, for example, will add up to pound;178 million next year.

Cameron Watt, the deputy director of the Centre for Social Justice and one of the key figures who worked on Iain Duncan Smith's report, believes it is now time the Government took action on the issue.

"It seems there is a political lobby highlighting the issue of underachievement among black boys, and quite rightly so," he says. "There have been a number of initiatives working exclusively with black boys. Some of them are brilliant, but I don't think there's a single project specifically for white working class boys. There just does not seem to be a political lobby highlighting their underachievement. I don't want to stir up racial hatred, but that is something that should be addressed."

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, points out that the Government's latest education White Paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for all, has two adjoining paragraphs relating to the issue.

The first promises more money and targeted programmes to drive up the attainment of black and Muslim pupils and travellers' children. The second mentions that white working class boys also underachieve and promises to "share good practice" to help.

"The contrast is stark," Mr Bangs says. "And it's a gift to the BNP. You have head teachers on these difficult estates saying what they need is more money and smaller classes, and yet you couldn't put your finger on any funding that was dedicated to supporting white working class kids."

The message from the Department for Education and Skills is that the proportion of white boys on free school meals achieving five or more good GCSEs has risen more than three per cent in the past year, faster than the national average for all pupils.

"We recognise that we must build on this progress. That is why we are putting a relentless focus on the progress of every individual through personalised learning so we know exactly where progress is made and where children are falling behind.

"Our pound;1 billion support for making personalised learning a reality will enable more intensive support for those who are falling behind; extra stretch and challenge for all gifted and talented pupils; and new opportunities for all young people to pursue their talents and interests as far as they want to," he said. But Allison Crompton knows a pot of extra money targeted at white working class kids would help her pupils. Some parts of her school's buildings have seen few improvements since they were built just after the Second World War, and her pupils are taught in ancient mobile classrooms around its playground. Now she is looking for private sponsorship for a science block.

"In some ways it isn't a problem - after all, we have been named as one of the most effective schools in the country. But I can always think of things we would be able to do if there was a funding stream for it. We do what we can - but we really need to support our pupils outside school as well as inside. If there was a pot of money for us, we'd be able to do far more."

Sort the bother from the boys

Middleton Technology School was one of more than 50 schools which took part in the research project on raising boys' achievement, run by Cambridge University. The school has employed a number of strategies, some simple and some more long-term. For example: Targeting "key leaders", who are nearly always boys. They are given attention, praise, encouragement and support from a senior member of staff, in the hope that they will achieve more and thus encourage their peers to do the same. These pupils are divided into three groups:Rebels - intelligent students on the 5 A*-C borderline who may disrupt lessons or intimidate staff; clowns - usually immature boys who can incite others to misbehave; and stars - successful and popular students who could help others.

Constant vigilance to ensure that a macho anti-school sub-culture is not allowed to develop. Street culture must be left at the school gate, and the head and senior management team patrol the school at key times of the day to ensure all pupils are wearing school uniform appropriately and have suitable hairstyles. Large groups of boys are not allowed to congregate at break or lunchtime, and are moved on if they do.

Using assemblies to point out what boys need to do and to challenge them to break the patterns of underachievement.

Encouraging more boys to take part in traditionally "female" projects such as school music and drama productions.

Ensuring there are sufficient male role models, both among staff and pupils.

Using a traffic light system to identify pupils whose behaviour is causing concern - most of whom are boys - and keeping those individuals under close monitoring.

Ensuring that the whole school has a structured approach to learning; all pupils in all lessons must know what their learning objectives are and whether they have attained them.

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