A scheme to boost boys' educational achievements by increasing their control over their own education is paying off, reports Raymond Ross.
A pioneering strategy to raise boys' attainment levels at primary school is already being hailed as a success, although it is only six months old.
The scheme, pioneered for P6 pupils at Royston primary in Edinburgh's Pilton area, is based on a weekly plan that sets clear, short-term objectives for pupils and increases their control of their own learning. It also allocates a one-hour weekly session for "dedicated pupil-directed learning time".
The scheme was developed by class teacher Sheila Laing, while she attended a course on raising boys' attainment, run by Colin Finlayson and Barbara Boyd of Edinburgh's education quality services.
All pupils are given the weekly plan first thing on Monday morning, and mark parts that are important or relevant to them. "This makes them aware of what they are doing," says Ms Laing. "I show them the criteria I'm looking for and give them a tick sheet. If boys know what is expected and get lots of structured input and involvement, they respond better.
"The top boys' writing has improved hugely and the less able boys, who tend to be disaffected, have been pulled in. Although it's too early to provide hard statistics, maths and reading have improved. But the biggest difference has been in motivation and attitude. Some pupils who are very limited are now taking more responsibility for their learning," she says.
Colin Finlayson says: "The strategy aims to create a structured learning environment that is communicated directly to the children in the class.
"Most boys need more support than most girls to organise themselves effectively. This strategy should help them get the 'big picture' of what they are learning each week. It also gives deadlines and targets, which are particularly helpful for boys," he says.
Because the weekly plan sets out separate lessons and tasks to be completed within a certain time, it helps prepare pupils for the secondary curriculum timetable, argues Sheila Laing. And as they are encouraged to take the plan home at the end of the week, parents can be involved in their child's work.
As well as providing pupils with a record of learning, the weekly schedules help them to remember gym kit and other special activities, and increase their control of their work, as the teacher has to honour the plan.
Sheila Laing says she has gained so much from weekly plans that she would not go back to her previous routine. "In any case there would be uproar from the children."
The second part of the strategy, the dedicated pupil-directed learning time, is designed to build responsibility into the classroom. It involves splitting the class into five groups and allowing each one in turn to choose an activity every Friday morning, the criteria being that it must be a learning activity and different from the previous groups' choices.
Over a trial period of five weeks, groups chose to work on environmental studies, physical education, language, art and maths games. This increased enthusiasm, promoted pupil discussion on definitions of "learning", improved negotiation skills, drew in children on the fringes of class social groupings and generated enough excitement about Fridays to improve end-of-week attendance.
"Both parts of the strategy work well," says headteacher Liz Whyte. "They give the pupils a greater class identity. They talk to one another, to parents and to me about both, and that's unusual. Parents have gone out of their way to say they are delighted.
"We are now opening it to other teachers on a voluntary basis and it might well become part of school policy, adapted for other year groups. The success is largely down to the fact that the pupils can see the objectives, the criteria sheets." With writing, for example, she says girls are more willing and able to tweak bits, to edit as they write. Left to their own devices, boys won't. But giving them the criteria beforehand allows them to edit as they go. "It may seem simple, but it really helps," she says.
The P6 pupils seem equally enthusiastic.
"You can't change the plan and you can see what you've got to do," says Andrew Muir. "If you're off, you can look back at the plan and catch up. It's better for the whole class and nearly everyone likes it."
"It makes me think about things more and it helps me learn," says Mark McLeod. "It makes me write a lot neater and better because I know what I'm doing better." If pupils know what they're doing, it helps teachers too. Supply teachers know exactly where to fit in and returning teachers know what has been achieved and where to continue. It disciplines the teacher to take an overview and check for a well-balanced curriculum and it frees up time for teaching, say Ms Whyte and Ms Laing.
"I can do the weekly plan in 30-45 minutes on my home computer at the weekend," says Ms Laing. "That's it done for the week. It gives me more time for teaching the actual class and for teaching with clear and shared objectives."