Free article: Improving teacher recruitment and retention: part 1 Free article: Get ready to win strategic school improvement funding Reputation management for schools Experience shared: Effective mentoring Tackling bullying in schools - part one Aggression at work: Managing yourself and others Managing difficult conversations The art of influence: Creating the best outcome Change management and conflict Managing anxiety at work Interpreting data for 2017 performance Free article: Know your strengths Free article: Developing an ethos of high expectation Achieving an ‘Outstanding’ Grade: Focused on Excellence Free article: HR and the successful school: A case study Free article: Leading the way to outstanding learner progress Free article: Attainment and progress: The Rochford Review Free article: How to create a leadership team that drives school improvement Free article: Prioritising the budget for school improvement Free article: Transforming a failing school Free article: Evaluating alternative and specially resourced provision Free article: Taking a school-wide approach to mental health and wellbeing Free article: The latest developments in education - January 2016 Free article: Managing uncertainty Free article: Pupil voice as an evaluation technique Free article: The latest developments in education - September 2016 Free article: Deconstructing Ofsted: Reflection after inspection Free article: MAT expansion: Don’t let school improvement become a casualty Free article: Ten rules for outstanding leaders Free article: The governing body as a critical friend Free article: Developing an ethos of high expectations Free article: The exam post-mortem Free article: Safeguarding: Everyone’s responsibility Free article: How do inspectors make the judgement about overall effectiveness? The Ofsted model Free article: Effective leadership builds effective teams Free article: Baseline assessment and SEND Free article: Deconstructing the link between SEND and poverty Free article: Making performance management count in school improvement Free article: Joining or setting up a multi-academy trust Free article: Using pupil voice to support school evaluation Free article: What are the signs of a good school improvement service adviser? Free article: Headteachers’ appraisal Free article: Making CPD work harder Free article: Interpreting the inspection dashboard Free article: The government's Prevent guidance Free article: Improving provision for the most able Free article: Personal development, behaviour and welfare Free article: Is there a mental health crisis in our schools? Free article: Evaluating the effectiveness of assessment Free article: Actively promoting fundamental British values Free article: Raising boys’ achievement Free article: National standards of excellence for headteachers Free article: Monitoring and coaching through lesson observation Free article: CPD: Less measurement and more development Free article: Challenging 
the most able Free article: Using the teachers’ standards as a framework for CPD and accountability Free article: Managing behaviour outside the classroom Free article: Managing pupils’ behaviour in lessons Free article: Keeping Children Safe Statutory Guidance Free article: Four steps to school improvement Free article: Finding a way through the jungle: The essence of leadership Free article: How to audit your whole-school literacy provision Free article: Professional development: the growing case for evidence Free article: Getting personal  with CPD Free article: Making performance appraisal an objective and helpful process Free article: Parent View — an update Free article: Raising pupil achievement through parental engagement: a practical approach Free article: Effective parental engagement

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Free article: Developing an ethos of high expectation

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Free article: HR and the successful school: A case study

Adrian Kneeshaw, Headteacher of Carlton Bolling College, gives a personal viewpoint of the benefits of bringing in the experts.

Free article: Leading the way to outstanding learner progress

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Free article: Prioritising the budget for school improvement

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Free article: Transforming a failing school

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Free article: Evaluating alternative and specially resourced provision

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Free article: Taking a school-wide approach to mental health and wellbeing

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Free article: The latest developments in education - January 2016

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Free article: Managing uncertainty

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Free article: The latest developments in education - September 2016

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Free article: Deconstructing Ofsted: Reflection after inspection

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Free article: MAT expansion: Don’t let school improvement become a casualty

How can an expanding multi-academy trust ensure that school improvement doesn’t become a casualty of change? Colin McLean of Best Practice Network looks at the issue and offers some guidance.

Free article: Ten rules for outstanding leaders

Adrian Kneeshaw looks at how leadership is important to the success of the school, and how to lead effectively.

Free article: The governing body as a critical friend

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Free article: Developing an ethos of high expectations

Steve Burnage shares some practical strategies to enable school leaders to develop an ethos of high expectations in their schools.

Free article: The exam post-mortem

Matt Bromley considers how schools can learn from exam performance data and build this into school improvement.

Free article: Safeguarding: Everyone’s responsibility

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Free article: How do inspectors make the judgement about overall effectiveness? The Ofsted model

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Free article: Baseline assessment and SEND

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Free article: Using pupil voice to support school evaluation

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Free article: What are the signs of a good school improvement service adviser?

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Free article: Actively promoting fundamental British values

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John Viner looks at research into boys’ underachievement and reviews some successful strategies.

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Free article: Challenging 
the most able

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Free article: Managing pupils’ behaviour in lessons

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Free article: Keeping Children Safe Statutory Guidance

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Free article: Raising boys’ achievement

Published: Thursday, 16 April 2015

John Viner looks at research into boys’ underachievement and reviews some successful strategies.

Summary

  • Academic underachievement is especially noticeable among poor white boys.
  • Underachievement affects behaviour, attendance and progress.
  • There are some recognisably successful strategies that schools can implement.
  • This article includes a case study and further information about relevant research.

It seems to be a fact of life that boys and girls make progress at different rates in different subjects. For years we have lived with the accepted generalisation that girls outperform boys in literacy and language whereas boys do rather better than girls in maths and science. This seems to be confirmed by countless RAISEonline reports, especially for primary schools, where the boys’ underachievement often becomes an area of focus. At Key Stage 3, girls appear to make accelerated progress across the board compared with boys, leading to an even wider gap at GCSE. Given the clearly identifiable gap between the relative achievement of white working-class pupils and other groups, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that white working-class boys present a particular challenge.

Defining the problem

A comprehensive four-year research project on boys’ performance was commissioned from the University of Cambridge by the then DES in 2000. The project reported in 2005 in Raising boys’ achievement. The introduction acknowledged that:

‘rather more boys than girls fail to achieve Level 4 in English national tests at the end of Key Stage 2; rather more boys than girls fail to achieve the 5 A*–C benchmark grades in GCSE examinations taken at 16+. These patterns of academic achievement are evident in most schools in England.’

It seems that little has changed since the report was published. The charity, Parity UK, published a summary of research in 2011 (Is action overdue on boys’ academic underachievement?) and noted that:

‘the gender gap continues (from the 1980s) to the present time and is observed throughout the various school-based assessment stages, starting at primary school (ages 5, 7 and 11 years), then at GCSE and A-level, and in the UK university population.’

This is not a uniquely British problem. There is a considerable body of evidence which suggests that this is a global issue. Parity cites an OECD study of higher education, which reported a sustained gender gap over time and over stages of education. In 2003 the journal Science published a large international study which found that even in mathematics, where conventional wisdom has it that boys do better than girls, the reverse was in fact true. However, teasingly, this study found that, in societies where equity was high, there was no major difference in the relative performance of boys and girls.

Perhaps this helps us to understand that this is a more complex issue than it first appears. Sitting behind the poor performance of boys is a whole social history and established culture of gender expectations. While providing no answers, this knowledge at least goes partway to explaining why this is a persistent theme. And social disadvantage seems to be a major factor. Owen Jones, basing his figures on a 2008 analysis, points out in Chavs – the demonization of the working class that, ‘only 15% of poor white boys and 20% of poor white girls leave state schools with basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. This is way behind middle-class children’.

Case study: John Viner’s experience as a head

It is one thing to re-state the problem; it is wholly different to address it. As the headteacher of a challenging coastal school with a high proportion of poor white families, I sat with my senior team and looked at the upcoming Year 4. This cohort contained a significant number of troublesome and frequently absent boys who were likely to undermine much of the work we had done to raise what had been very low standards. In an inspired moment, one of my deputies suggested we group the year by learning style. Pause for a sharp, disapproving intake of breath. However, we decided that, in the absence of any other plan, this might work. It was a £50K solution because we ended up employing two extra teachers, one each for Years 5 and 6. 

At the end of that year we gave pupils in Y4 and Y5 a conventional test of preferred learning styles and, in the new school year, reorganised them from three classes per year to four. One class comprised predominantly auditory learners, two classes were largely a mixture and one class was entirely made up of kinaesthetic learners. And, in both Y5 and Y6, these were all boys. Now, whatever view is taken of Gardner’s theories, and recognising that we had also reduced class sizes, the results were dramatic. Both classes were taught by outstanding teachers who tailored their teaching to meet the learning styles of their boys. By the end of the first half term attendance in these classes had improved dramatically while behaviour had shifted from disruptive to exemplary. If you wanted something done reliably, you asked these boys. And, above all, they made extraordinary progress, albeit from a low base. A by-product also happened to be remarkable achievement by both girls and boys in the auditory classes who, Ofsted noted, were working a year above expectations in maths.

What do studies tell us?

Grouping by learning style worked in the case study above, but is unlikely to be a panacea, especially given the present hostility to this theory. Nevertheless, it is one effective strategy noted in the 2005 Cambridge study. This research drew on an earlier piece of work by NFER (New ways of thinking about boys’ achievement) which proposed four main types of strategies or approaches:

  1. Organisational – whole-school approaches to building an ethos of equality. Remember, boys do better when equity is high.
  2. Individual – a mentoring and target-setting approach. Boys respond to the personal touch and someone to keep them focused.
  3. Pedagogic – focused on teaching and learning styles. Teachers ignore learning theory at their peril. Cognitive research has much to teach us.
  4. Socio-cultural – aiming to reduce the ‘laddish’ factor where it’s not cool to learn. Boys need to be able to break free from societal gender expectations.

The Cambridge study explores these approaches in much greater depth and may be helpful to colleagues wrestling with the problem of boys’ lack of achievement. The paper makes the point that:

‘In addressing issues of under-achievement it is crucial that intervention strategies address issues linked to students’ attitudes and image, their expectations and aspirations, tackled at the core. To be fully effective, these strategies must be developed systematically through time, and subsequently evaluated and refined in the light of experience. We have no evidence to suggest that short-term strategies are likely to impact positively upon students’ achievements in sustainable and ongoing ways.’

It adds an important caveat:

‘Finally, our research does not support the notion that there is a case for boy-friendly pedagogies. Pedagogies which appeal to and engage boys are equally girl-friendly. They characterise quality teaching, and as such are just as suitable and desirable for girls as for boys.’

It is probably time for another detailed academic exploration of boys’ underachievement, but these studies at least point us to some strategies, even if they are not complete solutions. Better to do something than nothing.

Further information

  • Younger, M. and Warrington, M. et al, Raising boys’ achievement, DfES, 2005
  • Briefing paper, Is action overdue on boys’ academic underachievement?, Parity UK, 2013, available at: http://bit.ly/ParityonBoys
  • Vincent-Lancrin, S. ‘The reversal of gender inequalities in higher education: An ongoing trend’, Higher Education to 2030, Vol. 1, Demography, OECD, 2008. For a summary see http://bit.ly/OECDGenderinHE
  • Jones, Owen, Chavs – the demonization of the working class, Verso, London, 2012
  • McLellan, Ros, New ways of thinking about boys’ achievement, NFER, 2003, available at: http://bit.ly/NFERBoys 

Toolkit

Use the following item to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

John Viner has taught in both primary and secondary schools, with a long history of successful school leadership. He is now a full-time writer, inspector and adviser.

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