Talking it over: how to get the boys to the top of the class

The gap in results between the sexes is growing. Diana Hinds finds a school where the girls are helping to redress the balance
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Boys, according to research by 14- and 15-year-old pupils at the Vale of Ancholme comprehensive school in Brigg, Humberside, are much less likely to have close friends, to cry or to talk about their problems than girls. And there are graphs on the classroom wall to prove it.

"Why is it that so few boys are prepared to talk about problems?" asks Mary Meredith, their English teacher, beginning the lesson. "I want you to discuss this with the person sitting next to you, and come up with at least three reasons. You've got two minutes: go!"

After two minutes the answers begin to flow back. "Boys don't like talking about problems because they get embarrassed," says Russell.

"Boys have an image that is tough and hard, and people that are tough and hard don't admit to having problems," offers Rachel.

The approach, a far cry from the "hands up and say the first thing that comes in to my head" strategy favoured particularly by boys, has been developed at the school as part of a programme designed to encourage them to perform better at school.

Last week, Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, revealed that one 16-year-old boy in five fails to achieve the English and maths scores expected of an average 10-year- old. Boys, in general, are lagging behind girls, even in parts of the curriculum such as science where they have traditionally been in the ascendant, causing concern nationally. The lag is noticeable even in the seven-plus test results.

The Vale of Ancholme school began serious work to help its boys two years ago and now has strategies in place that could offer a useful model to others.

Three years ago, with a brief to look at equal opportunities in the school, Ms Meredith found that 50 per cent of the girls were getting five or more A to C grades at GCSE compared with only 25 per cent of the boys. Although girls were also outperforming boys in science, by far the biggest gulf between the sexes was in English and the humanities, where many boys were being let down by poor language skills.

Work with local primary schools established, anecdotally at least, that, from the age of seven, boys started to say they didn't like reading and writing. So in September 1993, Geoff Hannan, an education consultant who had already helped the school to combat gender stereotyping, was called in to advise the Vale of Ancholme and its feeder primaries on ways of improving boys' performance.

Starting from the premise that boys grow up with an emphasis on doing rather than talking, Mr Hannan takes the view, uncontroversially enough, that many boys fail to develop "reflective" thinking: the ability to analyse, discuss, express feelings. Whereas girls' skills are generally language- based, boys' central learning style is experiential and risk-taking, hence the fact that boys are usually the first with their hands up in class, shouting out answers they may barely have considered.

Rule number one with Mr Hannan, therefore, is no hands up at the start of the lesson. Much better, he says, to address a question to the whole class, get them to discuss it with a partner for a few minutes, then choose boys and girls alternately to respond. If the class can be persuaded to sit in boy-girl pairs, then so much the better - for the boys' language development at any rate.

When it comes to written work, because boys tend to be less good at planning - "sequencing" in Hannan terminology - providing them with a five-point template to give structure can be helpful whether for writing an essay, or writing up an experiment in science.

Low concentration spans typical in disaffected boys can be improved by breaking the lesson up into bouts of talking and writing, becoming gradually longer as the lesson progresses.

"I have always believed that good talking leads to good writing, but Mr Hannan has been helpful in pointing out the connection between good language flow and improving boys," says Ms Meredith.

Although there has only been a slight improvement in GCSE results, Ms Meredith is confident that the new approach is helping the boys. "His technique of active questioning, instead of having hands up, is something I do a lot now, and I have got a lot more participation," she says.

English literature, however, still presents more problems than English language. "The boys are just not as interested as the girls in understanding character, motivation, theme. They don't really care why someone behaved in a certain way, and don't see why it's important."

As Matthew, 15, puts it: "The books we do at school are far too long. I'd like to do books that are about something real, not something that happened ages ago."

In the meantime, what of the girls? Is there a danger that in devoting so much energy to the boys, the girls will slip back?

Mr Hannan is adamant that this is not the case. "I am not the anti-feminist backlash. We still haven't done enough for the girls, but the emphasis in my work is on improving performance generally: we need to bring both boys and girls on together."

Just as the boys can learn from the girls, he argues, so the girls could use a bit more risk-taking and assertiveness in class.

Some departments at the Vale of Ancholme have been more enthusiastic than others to incorporate the new approach and Liz Terry, the head, admits that changing the culture of the school, "where for boys to be a swot is the lowest thing there is", will take a very long time.

How you can improve your son's ability to communicate

Talk to your sons as much as to your daughters.

Be a good listener: Ask questions, show interest and encourage boys to go into detail.

Negotiate, if you can, don't just tell them what to do.

Read yourself

Help to build up boys' reading from their own interests - eg, moving on from football magazines to biographies of footballers.

Don't ban comics

If your son is reluctant to read fiction, then read with him: boys up to the age of 12 can benefit enormously from being read to.

Help boys to plan - eg, preparations for a holiday, or the time they are going to spend on homework and social life.

Don't discourage the computer: some games can help with planning and decision-making. But remind them that wordprocessing on the computer can be fun, too.

Improving boys' English is rapidly taking over from equal opportunities to help girls as the fashionable education drive of the Nineties. New initiatives are proliferating in schools and local authorities across the country.

Hertfordshire: 11 secondary schools have this term been awarded pounds 700 each by the county council to buy new books more appealing to boys' tastes, such as horror, science fiction, fantasy and non-fiction relating to special interests. It will also pay for time for teachers to plan activities around them.

"There is evidence that boys do read quite a lot, but it tends to be the kind of reading that is not terribly well represented in English lessons," says Terry Reynolds, former Hertfordshire English adviser (now an English inspector in Tower Hamlets), who co-ordinated the project.

"If boys prefer to be active and practical, doing things with books is a way of engaging them," Mr Reynolds says. When it comes to writing, asking boys to write about how things work, for instance, may sometimes be better than asking them to discuss their feelings, he suggests. Discussion of television programmes can stimulate debate and written work around particular subjects, and providing a framework to help pupils to structure their writing is of use both in fiction and non-fiction.

Lewisham: all secondary schools and some primaries are this year taking part in Literacy 2000, a pounds 2.5m project that the authority is running for the next five years, with boys and reading as a major focus.

Secondary school boys team up and read regularly with primary school boys - this is particularly beneficial for the middle band of boys, who read without fluency or much enthusiasm. For the younger boys mentoring provides positive role models, and for the older ones, a position of responsibility that boosts their confidence. The number of exclusions has already been reduced among this group.

The National Literacy Trust has come up with a series of posters depicting four well-known footballers, each earnestly bent over a book. The trust has had hundreds of requests for the poster. The vast majority of the callers have said there need to be more imaginative ideas like the posters to encourage boys to become enthusiastic readers.