How to turn boys on to studying

Boys do worse than girls at exams. But researchers at Cambridge have found a few schools reversing the trend. Their report goes to Charles Clarke next month. Tim Maby examines its findings
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The Independent Online

Three weeks into the new academic year, we were summoned by our son's teacher. He was not doing well at his state primary school and lacked concentration. We agreed to talk to him. But what did his teacher think he could do? The answer was little really. We just had to hope our son would somehow start to take an interest.

Three weeks into the new academic year, we were summoned by our son's teacher. He was not doing well at his state primary school and lacked concentration. We agreed to talk to him. But what did his teacher think he could do? The answer was little really. We just had to hope our son would somehow start to take an interest.

The head teacher was not much more hopeful. We had been worried for some time that our son was not advancing as fast in the school as his sister had. Like many London parents, we had turned to tutors to help our daughter for competitive secondary school entry exams. We now turned to a tutor for our son. It was the tutor who told us that something was going wrong. Our son was achieving above the average in lessons with her and enjoying the work. But it was not the same story at school.

We found our solution for him in the private sector, with its tradition of enthusing boys for learning; in our case, a modern, co-educational school. Michael Younger, the head of the postgraduate certificate of education at Cambridge's education faculty, began a similar quest in 2000. He tracked down good practice in state schools. After winning funding for his Raising Boys' Achievement project from the Department for Education and Skills, he began a review of results across English schools with his colleague, Dr Molly Warrington. Their report goes to the Education Secretary next month.

They found that boys were doing as well as girls in only 25 secondary schools. In some of those, the good results were a bit of a mystery. The schools were often simply throwing every strategy they could think of at the problem. Their teachers were not sure which worked well, or why. Only a handful could point to sustained improvements in results during a five-year period.

The pair grouped 24 primary and 28 secondary schools into threes: one school leading the way; the others trying out the methods and collaborating on their development. These schools found a wide variety of methods that worked across the country. But they are not yet clear if there are consistent patterns. "There can be no one-size-fits-all approach," says the researchers' interim report.

Improvement in boys' performance does involve fresh teaching methods, and everyone I met agreed that boys were far less prepared to stomach boring lessons than girls. For change to be made, there needs to be a clearer identification of children's learning styles, so teaching methods fit more than one type of personality.

I have seen boys, who are bubbling with energy, become distracted because they are expected to sit still and in silence through a lesson. The same boys came alive at break when learning studious games, such as chess, because it is treated as a battle. Crucially, there needs to be a realisation of the social culture of boys, so that teachers work with it, rather than discipline it. For this to happen, says the Cambridge group, sharper leadership and school teamwork are crucial. The National Association of Head Teachers has brought out its latest Secondary Leadership paper on this issue.

Middleton Technology School in Rochdale has seen big improvements in boys' performance. Dame Pam Coward took over the headship 10 years ago, when it was at the bottom of the local league tables. Now it is at the top. As she retires, she puts most of that down to her own Boys' Achievement Project. Good lessons at the school are energetic and full of quick changes. I saw maths and history classes. The teachers use a fast dialogue with their pupils: a series of questions and answers; frequent, timed tasks; constant revision mixed in with new material. In the spring, I saw the same technique, reminiscent of an auctioneer, work in an agricultural college, where unacademic, young men were drawn in to the give-and-take, without even realising that they were starting to learn.

Janine Kellett, teaching maths at Middleton, gave students individual white boards on which they wrote their answers to hold up. She kept up a rapid-fire commentary, commending or asking for improvement. She told me that she sat her class alternately boy-girl: it made the boys compete with each other, but become more gentle in their reactions; it stopped mischievous groups building up, or cliques; it created different and supportive partnerships. Not entirely true, I thought, watching four teenage girls sliding out of her vision into a distant corner on their own.

But then I watched her moving across the ability range in chasing responses to her quick-fire questions. Her style was to lead the children into discovering the mathematical rules by trial and error. It was fun - one of the liveliest maths lessons I have been to - and constantly challenging.

David Williams, the history teacher, says boys are willing to give a quick and easy answer, but enjoy being challenged to go deeper. "Boys want to show off," he says. "They're the comedians of the class. I'm giving them the opportunity to show that being intelligent is another way of showing off."

He used a book of original sources to explain how Japan came into the Second World War with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Using a range of learning styles - reading aloud, question and answer, discussion - he left just a short time for them each to write a conclusion. I was impressed at the way this group of working-class 14 year olds chose to make sense of their topic by comparing it to the war on Iraq. Williams says it's rare to see a group of children in such an adult conversation. When I did hear them being flippant, he moved them on quickly.

Middleton Technology School tried single sex teaching, but decided against it. Deansfield High School in Wolverhampton experimented with a segregated English class of boys for six weeks before SATs. Their results improved dramatically. The boys loved it. They had to perform Macbeth in class and write their own rap songs to accompany it.

Deansfield has been looking at what it calls the "preferred learning styles" of students. Maths and English teachers have been urged to teach the same lesson in different ways to respond to the ways that students learn best. I watched a maths lesson which involved different learning styles: whole class dialogue; pupils and teachers demonstrating theories using the whiteboard; and short written exercises from text books. Teacher Amanda Austin told me that they have made up maths songs. Every lesson includes a de-brief, when the children tell the teacher if the lesson has worked for them. That makes for a partnership, rather than a formal relationship.

Every child I spoke to in Austin's class knew enough about themselves to say which learning style they preferred. Pupils discussed their differences eagerly. One girl preferred to learn in a physical way, seeing teachers act out a problem, moving around the class and using the whiteboard. She liked movement. After only a year of this kind of teaching, the children say they find it easier to learn in a range of styles, because they understand what is happening. Teachers at Deansfield believe that it has helped the boys because it recognises their differences. In fact, the male cliché is most often true - most boys prefer the physical learning styles.

But the most novel reform at Middleton is the key leaders' strategy, whereby 20 to 30 heads of informal groups - or gangs - of boys are identified for mentoring. The idea is to give them a positive attitude to school by searching for opportunities to develop their interests. One boy, Paul, was helped to get work experience with the army. For him it was the link between what he learnt and how he could use it after leaving school.

Paul told me that his mentor transformed his attitude. He understood what the school and his teachers could do for him and why studying was worthwhile. Grudgingly, he agreed that it had had an effect on some of the "other lads", who had changed their attitudes too.

Dame Pam is now finding many boys behave more like girls because they have started to work together in groups to study. "Last year I had a wonderful group of boys who all got As," she says. "Nobody called them soft." If her ideas are adopted nationally, it could mean a big improvement in boys' results and fewer parents being called in to receive teachers' complaints.

My son is now part of a tutor group in his school, which is led by a teacher who mentors him. He treats maths homework as the same exciting challenge as practising his football skills.

The writer is a reporter for Radio 4"s 'PM' programme who made a programme earlier this year on improving boys' performance