Test ban will benefit girls

14th March 2008 at 00:00
But boys will gain long term from new vocational initiatives, says new Estyn report

The scrapping of tests for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds in Wales will probably favour girls who are already outperforming boys, a landmark report suggested this week.

But the introduction of the foundation phase for under-sevens, 14-19 learning pathways and the Welsh Baccalaureate could champion boys in the long run.

The Estyn report, Closing the gap between boys' and girls' attainment in schools, calls on the Assembly government to commission research into why girls thrive under non-exam conditions compared with boys.

Estyn's recommendation - one of 13 for the Assembly government, local authorities and schools - comes as teacher assessment replaces Sats at 11 and 14, which were optional until January, later this spring. Inspectors investigated 600 school inspection reports from 2005 to 2007 as part of a review into widening attainment gaps.

The report says girls outperformed boys in 85 per cent of secondaries compared with 30 per cent of primaries. The gaps are not specific to Wales but fewer boys here gain GCSEs, or their equivalent, than in the rest of the UK.

Poor literacy skills were cited as a major reason for poor performance. Boys are also much more likely to suffer from negative peer pressure. They also lack male role models.

Only 15 per cent of primary teachers are male and recruitment is expected go down, the report says.

It says schools that have narrower gender attainment gaps are more likely to foster greater competition among male pupils. But the report also says a significant majority of boys in Wales cannot keep pace and experience an increasing sense of frustration and failure at age 14, mostly as a result of poor literacy.

Dr Bill Maxwell, chief inspector, said improvements in girls' achievement exceeded that of boys in almost all subjects. In 2007, 66.5 per cent of girls in Wales achieved A*-C grades at GCSE compared with 59.3 per cent of boys.

Estyn's researchers looked to schools where the gender gap had been reduced to share their good practice. They found that whole-school approaches for improving all pupils successfully raised the achievement of boys and pointed to past improvements in girls' performance in maths and science.

Frank Ciccotti, head of Pembroke School in Pembrokeshire, said negative attitudes become entrenched as pupils get older, but the school's early literacy scheme had reduced the gap between the sexes.

"We have gone from 30 per cent difference to 8 per cent. For example, in English we have chosen set texts that are more boy-friendly with more emphasis on non-fiction."

In other schools, encouraging pupils to participate in lessons, using technology, setting short-term targets and introducing competitive tasks has also engaged boys.

Sally Francis, head of Mount Airey Nursery and Infants' School in Pembrokeshire, which is piloting the foundation phase, says the curriculum has had a positive impact on boys because it is activity-based.

"It has helped with literacy because so much of our learning starts with group discussion," she said.

Positive role models for boys were also touted as challenging attitudes that it is not "cool" to learn.

"For some boys there is tension between being good at school and gaining status with their peer group," said inspectors. Other boys had unrealistic ambitions of becoming "rich and famous".

Although the gender gap stretches across Wales, the report found variations between local authorities. It recommended they should set targets for raising boys' attainment, make performance data available and share good practice.

The report says improvement of girls' attainment in KS4 coincided with the new GCSE syllabus in the mid-1980s, which gave more of a prominent role to teacher assessment and coursework. Boys are less likely to complete courses on time and work consistently.

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