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'Worries over boys' GCSE results come way too late'

Trefor Lloyd, consultant with charity the Boys Development Project, writes: 

Every summer when GCSE and A level results emerge, the debate about boys’ underachievement rages for about two days and then fades. In between, usually as a result of government policy or Ofsted, the issue re-emerges and once again fades.

What is surprising is that we think secondary is the time to address underachievement, with by far the majority of initiatives being delivered after Year 7, while many would argue that most of the damage has already been done.

Boys’ underachievement is complex and there are no quick fixes. We are also not talking about all boys and it is important to keep underachievement separate from low achievement. Over the last 20 years we have seen a broad range of strategies ranging from whole school approaches through to boy-friendly literature and teaching strategies in the classroom.

While understandably most of the concerns within schools are in both the build-up to and during the GCSE period, a range of authors have suggested that the earlier we address underachievement the better.

Interestingly, the younger the age the more biology dominates the literature. Steve Biddulph, author of the 1998 bestseller Raising Boys, and many others all advocate a later start at school (usually 7), because boys are “not ready” or “come into school behind girls and catch up about 7 or 8”. This reflects a tension between adapting schools to boys or boys to schools.

The top 20 per cent of boys look very much like the top 20 per cent of girls. When they come into school they are usually strongly verbal; able to express themselves well; motivated to learn; compliant and sociable.

As a result of being strongly verbal, they usually fall into reading and even writing. It is the bottom 20 per cent, which is over populated by boys where they can struggle with compliance; are too often low verbal and high physical, which in itself can lead to conflict with other children and adults.

We have recently carried out two investigations in an attempt to identify boys and the barriers that emerge early in boys lives to their achievement.

There has always been a view in early years that boys come in behind girls and “catch up” when they are 7 or 8. This year provides six years of comparable levelling data in primary, so we have looked at the data for Year 6 (Year 1 to 6 data) and Year 5 (Reception to Year 5).

While there was very little evidence of a catching up across either cohort, some interesting trends emerged when we looked at the top 20 per cent and the bottom 20 per cent. The top 20 per cent of boys progressed very similarly to the top 20 per cent of girls, both progressing at least two sub-levels per year and with a steady progression.

In contrast, the bottom 20 per cent had more boys (usually at least three-quarters), but progress was erratic and certainly no indication of “catching up”. In fact, the bottom 20 per cent in Reception and Year 1 were the bottom 20 per cent in Year 5 and 6. The school received a good with outstanding features in its last inspection so we are looking at significant differences in this sub-group.

The second investigation we carried out started with the identification of boys who were already underachieving in Year 6 (across four schools). Most were in level two territory, and not with a diagnosis or identified learning difficulty. We purposely went for those that exhibited challenging behaviour within the classroom and had difficulties engaging with the curriculum.

We read their yearly teacher reports and looked particularly at their Reception and Year 1 end-of-year reports. What emerged were combinations of characteristics that significantly contributed towards their current behaviour (in Year 6). Five were recurrent:

1. High physical (always keen to go out and confident climbers);
2. Low verbal (limited vocabulary and/or reluctant to use what they have);
3. Non-compliant (reluctant to follow the most basic instruction “everyone to the carpet please”);
4. High emotion (usually angry and/or sulky);
5. Low social skills.

As a result of these two investigations we have been working with five schools to identify those boys that “stand out” in Reception with more than their share of these attributes.

Our experience suggests that many of the behaviours that prevent boys (especially in the bottom 20 per cent) from achieving, can be addressed relatively easily, if targeted while in Reception or Year 1.

The transition from nursery to Reception provides a valuable year to address barriers. Compliance, structure, routine, communication and an ability to engage with more formal learning are expected and while most children make this transition easily, a relatively small number find this very difficult (we find between one and four of the boys in any reception class struggle in these ways) and are often very visible after observing a class for a few minutes.

We have developed a series of strategies that seem to have successfully removed the barriers for the targeted boys and will follow them through primary into secondary.

It is time we stopped our summer concerns with boys, underachievement and exam results and look for ways to tackle the issue much earlier. The Stand Out Boys initiative looks hopeful, but the strongest implication of this initiative is that underachievement can and needs to be addressed much earlier than the build-up to GCSEs.

For more information about the Stand Out Boys Project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, go to

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