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Why doing well needs to be 'cool'

Following fears that baseline assessment could brand boys as failures, a specialist says testing should be used to check if they are ready for Year 1, while one school is taking a different approach to under- achievement (below)

WHEN THE boys of Hele's School were called into a special single-sex assembly they thought truancy, graffiti or bad behaviour might be the subject.

Instead, they were told that the girls were outshining them in virtually every subject and that they had better pull their socks up.

"You do have to be quite sensitive about it because you can't tell how they are going to take it, but in the main it seems to have done the trick," said Sylvia Sutcliffe, the deputy head.

The underachievement of boys at Hele's, in Plympton, near Plymouth, is not as acute as in some schools. A recent inspection report from the Office for Standards in Education commented that male pupils were attaining levels higher than the national average.

The school's own analysis of boys' performance in key stage 3 English tests - the subject in which boys are most likely to lag behind - shows that in 1995, 65 per cent achieved level 5 or above, compared with 88 per cent of girls.

A year later the proportion had risen to 69 per cent, and 68 per cent in 1997, while the girls' tally was 89 per cent in both years.

However, teachers were noticing a distinct lack of motivation in boys as they progressed through school. They started well enough in Year 7, but by Year 10 many lacked drive and came to school ill-prepared to learn.

Teachers also turned their attention to parents. A leaflet was issued advising mothers and fathers about how they might help their sons learn at home.

They were to encourage them to read, ration the time spent watching television and offer praise for effort and achievement while "avoiding nagging and moaning". Small rewards for completion of homework were also suggested. The leaflet advised that "the promise of a hot dog at 9pm is probably more effective than a bike at Christmas".

Recently, each boy was photographed holding a football, swimming trophy, camera or other item as evidence of something they excel at. The pictures will be displayed in school with the aim of showing that every child is talented at a particular activity.

Another solution being considered at Hele's is segregating boys and girls in some subjects. Mrs Sutcliffe said: "While it is true that boys often dominate lessons, this does not necessarily lead to a high level of debate. Girls tend to wait until they have something worth saying before they speak.

"On the other hand, we have seen evidence that boys can be intimidated by girls, who have a habit of giving them that withering look when they say something silly or mess around."

Daniel Brewer, 11, said it came as little surprise to him that his female classmates do better than boys in exams. But he added: "The teachers said it's because girls study more, but I think it's because they are interested in different things. Boys are more active and like to go out."

Martyn Hallam, 13, who has volunteered to be a peer mentor, said: "Boys lag behind because they need more support. They are more easily distracted and tend to get into trouble. "It's not seen to be cool among boys if you do well, and they are more lazy."

Mrs Sutcliffe said that the mentality of needing to be accepted and having "street cred" among boys was one of the biggest obstacles teachers needed to overcome.

"We are gradually getting through to them that getting a merit award or gold star is something desirable and to be proud of, and not something that needs to be kept quiet,'' she said.

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