How can secondary schools prevent boys from switching off and dropping out? Kevan Bleach has gone searching for solutions
Sneyd School in Walsall is like most English and Welsh secondaries in that our girls do considerably better at GCSE than their male classmates. Last summer, 36 per cent of the girls gained five of more A*-C grades, compared with only 24 per cent of the boys.
By the GCSE years, negative attitudes tend to be entrenched. So in trying to identify practical ways to improve boys' performance, we decided to investigate their attitudes to work and school at the point where signs of under-achievement begin to show - the latter part of Year 8.
Research at Keele University and work led by Professor Jean Rudduck at Homerton College, Cambridge, shows that some boys' motivation falls from this point. The initial enthusiasm of being in a secondary school has dissipated, while new social and adolescent influences begin to intrude.
There has, however, been little research into the aspects of school life that boys of this age like or dislike, and which affect their performance, or how teachers could address the problem. I was delighted, therefore, to lead a team of colleagues in investigating these issues. Our work was organised as an action research partnership with the University of Wolverhampton's Educational Research Unit.
Detailed interviews were carried out with a sample of 18 reasonably able, but potentially under-achieving, boys. They talked about their preferred styles of learning, reading habits, attitudes to homework, feelings about success and failure, and relationships with teachers.
The interviews were done in groups of two or three in a relaxed setting to help foster a rapport. Promises of confidentiality were crucial in encouraging the boys to "open up".
We were heartened to find that the boys regarded school as reasonably enjoyable and invigorating. They did not wish to fail in their work and did not want most of their teachers to think badly of them. There were, however, clear signs that certain factors could cause dissatisfaction to grow.
* The style of teaching and learning can affect their enjoyment greatly. The activities they liked included role-play, practical investigations, the use of information technology and audio-visual aids. When these are used, the boys said they felt better-motivated and achieved greater success.
* A distinct lack of interest was expressed in reading - or, at least, in the traditional novel. Predictably, the boys preferred playing computer games. However, they said they liked magazines and information books about soccer, war, horror and adventure.
One way of encouraging boys to read more is to offer them a greater variety of material, even if this means investing initially in magazines, practical non-fiction, TV and film "tie-ins" or science fantasy. Other activities that could engage unambitious male minds include private and group reading, collaborative book reviews, use of CD-Roms, book weeks and visiting authors. Then, perhaps, they could be nudged into a choice of more reflective material that relies on understanding character or plot or motivation.
* The strong "shopfloor" view was that schoolwork should be done on a strictly nine-to-four basis. They said they often completed their homework grudgingly and as quickly as possible because they wanted to do more important things. We, therefore, have to make home study seem worthwhile, rather than "more of the same".
The tasks our boys liked included research and investigations, interviews, observations, problem-solving and IT-based projects. Developing such activities will give pupils the chance to practise skills learnt in class and encourage a more autonomous style of learning.
* Attitudes to subjects often hinged on whether the boys felt they were achieving success. Greater participation and interest in lessons fed from teachers being prepared to recognise effort and offer encouragement. But some boys spoke of being embarrassed in class, a reminder of how fragile their egos were.
Identifying and acknowledging the potential for achievement in individuals is crucial for any school encouraging all pupils to have high expectations. As boys grow older, of course, it becomes less and less "cool" to be seen to be interested in academic work. So they play down the amount of effort they make and cultivate an image of reluctant involvement. One boy said that he found being in a group of achievers offered immunity from the "keeno" label. If greater use could be made of groupings in which boys can share achievement, this might foster collective pride in their effort.
* The quality of teacher-pupil relationships is another vital ingredient of effective learning. Our boys believed teachers should be personable, recognise individual needs and should be responsive to anyone asking for help. Research in Australia by Peter Hill confirms that "teacher warmth" is a key factor in influencing progress.
So what else has our research taught us?
Many of the changes in attitude that cause boys to muck around at the back of the classroom are rooted in the educational challenges, the quality of teaching and learning, and the nature of pupil-teacher relationships offered by a school.
Failure to address such issues can turn some boys off learning, and lead to a deterioration in behaviour. It can also cause them to perform less well at GCSE than girls of comparable ability, and make it more difficult for them to obtain training or employment. The last thing we need is an educational under-class of disaffected boys.
At Sneyd School, we have identified five broad areas in which we can develop a greater interest in learning and achievement among adolescent boys. Some involve practical steps, while others imply a more fundamental shift in thinking.
None offers simple solutions or guaranteed improvements. Also, we are conscious that nothing must be done to restrain girls' opportunities.
If, however, our modest initiative helps our younger boys to develop and sustain what Jean Rudduck calls "a sense of the importance of learning" to carry forward into their option choices and GCSE courses, we shall be very satisfied.
Kevan Bleach is senior teacher at Sneyd School, Walsall, a 1,350-pupil, 11-18 comprehensive. His research report, What difference does it make?, is available from the Educational Research Unit, University of Wolverhampton, Gorway Road, Walsall WS1 3BD, price Pounds 3.50.