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Words of comfort for males

'Boys are under-achieving, what can we do?' Amanda Barton looks for answers. Modern languages teachers have known since the 1960s that girls out-perform boys, so they weren't taken aback by the recent OFSTED report which highlighted this fact.

But for many teachers, still reeling from the shock of seeing girls over-achieve at GCSE level both in 1994 and 1995, this is a relatively new concept and a sense of urgency accompanied the report.

Whether or not we accept that girls have "natural aptitude", parents, peers, the media and teachers themselves also play a part in making languages a feminine domain.

How can we meet the differing needs of both boys and girls in a mixed classroom? Segregation is the instinctive solution, and one being considered by many.

Hollingworth High School in Rochdale has segregated the whole of Year 7, except for one control group, for French classes. The project was set up both as a response to national statistics and to articles in The TES last year featuring other co-educational schools which had adopted similar measures.

At Madeley High School, Staffordshire, the decision of Norma Horton, head of modern languages, to separate boys and girls in two high-ability groups in Year 8 for both French and German, was based as much on her concern for the girls as for the boys. Presented with a Year 7 group of "strong, dynamic boys who were very, very vociferous" and a group of "studious, quiet girls who were gradually bludgeoned into silence", she set out to capitalise on the boys' enthusiasm at this early stage, while promoting the girls' spoken skills. She did this by separating them.

By contrast, the splitting of Kirsten Watkins' Year 10 French group at Ashlawn School, Rugby, was motivated primarily by anxiety for the boys. Analysis of exam results across the curriculum highlighted the particularly poor performance of boys in languages and prompted her to separate the "disaffected" boys from some "very able" girls.

Segregation alone, however, will clearly not be sufficient to improve the performance of boys. When, in the early 1980s, the Girls Into Science and Technology project (GIST) was launched to encourage more girls to study traditionally male subjects, one of its objectives was to identify the learning styles, interests and needs of girls and tailor lessons to them. If we are to have the same success with boys in languages, we need to be similarly responsive to their already well-established male traits, and modify our approach accordingly.

All three heads of languages piloting single-sex teaching at the moment are keenly aware of this requirement and of the opportunities afforded by an boys-only group. Valerie McDonald, curriculum area manager at Hollingworth High School and responsible for one of the all-boys' groups, is using the opportunity to foster her pupils' social skills, and "get them organised", as well as focusing on particular areas of difficulty, such as writing. Norma Horton's lessons with boys tend to be "more boisterous" than those with girls, while Kirsten Watkins sets out to create a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom, less intimidating to boys. She encourages competition with the girls' class, a practice which may be frowned upon by equal opportunities experts, but which creates tremendous motivation.

Analysing the results of a pilot questionnaire with the teachers, games such as hangman, bingo and flashcard games along with IT-related tasks, were predictably firm favourites across all three year groups but there were a few surprises. The Year 10 boys from Ashlawn, for instance, were unexpectedly positive about writing and far less enthralled than the other two groups by visual arts or by moving around the classroom.

It is to be expected that boys' interests will vary from group to group and change as they grow, and it is essential they are monitored closely. Future research should focus on identifying trends within age and ability group.

The question on every anxious modern languages teacher's lips, however - "Does single-sex teaching achieve the desired results?" - has yet to be answered. At Hollingworth, Madeley and Ashlawn, teachers are all planning to take their segregated groups through into the next academic year, reviewing the success of the current project and looking at student numbers.

Valerie McDonald and Norma Horton both refer to some evidence of success in assessment test results; the Hollingworth boys' written skills have improved considerably, while Madeley's boys' average test results have been elevated to almost the same level as the girls.

Teaching an older all-boys, mixed-ability group, it seems, presents additional, and not altogether pleasant, challenges. Intensified peer group pressure can produce "a wall of discontent". It remains to be seen, in the next two years, whether this can be dismantled by carefully planning single-sex teaching, or whether the single-sex initiative is most suitable in the earlier years of language learning.

At present, the Madeley boys wouldn't have it any other way. They thrive in what they describe as a "happier environment". "We have more chance to go ahead with the speaking but at our own pace with the writing," one said.

Amanda Barton is a graduate teaching assistant at the Language Centre, University of Warwick, where she is researching for a PhD studying boys' underachievement in modern languages

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