Raising Boy’s Achievment
This is a summary of a four-year project (2000-2004), undertaken at the University of Cambridge, focussing on the gender gap in achievement. Boys’ underachievement is currently of international concern, and has been a high profile issue in England since the early 1990s. The differential is most marked in Key Stage 2 English and Key Stage 4 results. The research involved 50 primary, secondary and special schools in England, primarily to identify strategies which appeared to make a difference, and then to trial these in 17 ‘learning triads’ (each comprising one ‘Originator’ and two ‘Partner’ schools). The research is interesting on a number of levels. It highlights and challenges a number of preconceptions and dilemmas implicit in the debate, including interpretations of (and the ‘sense of moral panic’ regarding) boys’ underachievement, and the notion of a separate ‘boys’ pedagogy’. The researchers also provide valuable notes of caution: achievement levels continue to rise for girls and boys, and the gender gap appears to be stabilising after the short-term effect of widening
- generalisations about gender conceal as much as they reveal: many boys do achieve extremely well in all areas, and some girls underachieve (social class factors are critical here). In many schools, “the core of the issue….revolves around a minority of pupils”
- there are boys who devise coping strategies to balance notions of masculinity and achieve academically
In schools across the country, intervention strategies were sought which appeared to be beneficial for boys whilst not impacting negatively on girls’ performance. The researchers conclude that there is no quick fix; that there are necessary pre-conditions for success depending on contextual factors, and that an integrated approach (a ‘basket of strategies’) is required. However, they are able to categorise these strategies into four broad approaches: pedagogic, individual, organisational and socio-cultural. Whilst acknowledging the difficulties of identifying the specific impact of any one strategy, the potential of each approach is explored through a combination of quantitative and qualitative data – the latter underpinned by a feminist methodology, with pupil voice central to this. Many of the findings resonate with those from previous studies, and the case studies provide rich and detailed accounts of interventions for improving boys’ literacy, target-setting and mentoring, single-sex classes, ‘socio-cultural strategies’, and focussing on teaching-learning styles (although the “simplistic and mechanistic” ways in which work on preferred styles is sometimes implemented is called into question). There is a separate chapter on special schools, where it is found that, although SEN is described as a ‘gendered phenomenon’, a simple gender distinction does not tell the whole story.
There are examples of original and significant findings included in the case studies:
- the role of speaking and listening is paramount in raising boys’ literacy
- pedagogies which purport to be boy-friendly characterise quality teaching and learning, and consequently also appeal to and engage girls
- similarly, rather than a separate special education pedagogy, there appears to be a case for an integration of approaches to develop an inclusive pedagogy
- evidence suggests that teachers do not modify their teaching style and strategies to meet perceived differing needs in single-sex classes, although there may be affective benefits on the part of the pupils
- mentors may need to be assertive and demanding, as well as collaborative and supportive, to allow disengaged pupils to protect their image
Of the four approaches identified by the researchers, socio-cultural is viewed as the most important. The case study of the Originator secondary school in Chapter 8 of the report is perhaps the most uplifting. In this, ‘key leaders’ (Rebels, Clowns and Stars) are identified at the end of Year 10, and allocated ‘key befrienders’ from the staff. The pupils recognise this as a form of tightly focused mentoring, and appear to benefit through establishing self-esteem as learners, and having a vision of what is possible. This in turn has benefits for the rest of the pupil body, reflected in the school’s improving GCSE results.
The research design itself appears to have resulted in a number of benefits to the participating schools. It provided the Originator schools with the opportunity to clarify and deconstruct their strategies, and boys’ attitudes and achievements in the Partner schools tended to improve as a result of embedding these strategies.