- 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:
- Organisational – whole-school approaches to building an ethos of equality. Remember, boys do better when equity is high.
- Individual – a mentoring and target-setting approach. Boys respond to the personal touch and someone to keep them focused.
- Pedagogic – focused on teaching and learning styles. Teachers ignore learning theory at their peril. Cognitive research has much to teach us.
- 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.
- 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
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.