In early years especially, boys should not be forced into a “girl-like” model of learning, explains Steve Mynard

I was always in trouble at school; infants, juniors and secondary. How would I describe myself? Bright, but bored probably sums me up as a pupil! One of my former teachers said, when he heard that I had gone into teacher training, ‘Well, at least he knows all the tricks!’At college in the early 1980s we discussed the sociology of education and the prevailing opinion seemed to be that boys and girls should be treated equally and this was often interpreted as, ‘should be treated the same’. Well, should they? After nearly 20 years of teaching I am very much of the opinion that while boys and girls should be given equal opportunities they certainly don’t benefit from being treated exactly the same.After three years of headship I am back in the classroom – it’s where I belong, to be honest. I have chosen to teach Reception as I think there are some truly revolutionary things going on in the early years and it is exciting to be a part of that. I have some boisterous boys in my class and they are running me ragged! My adorable little girls on the other hand will happily choose an activity and stay focused on it to completion. They are kind and friendly, responsible and helpful – and most of them aren’t even five yet! It isn’t just in Reception that this holds true. As a Year 5 and 6 teacher for many years (that’s where men tend to congregate in primaries) it has always been the boisterous boys who have taken up all my time and attention while the girls have quietly got on with learning. There have, of course, been exceptions; Matthew was an exceptionally able and hardworking boy, while Sarah would throw chairs at me!

Adapting early years play to meet boys’ needs

I wanted to do something for my boisterous boys in Reception and my first thought was superhero play. I discussed this idea with one of our LEA early years advisers and she suggested I ask the boys what they would like to do rather than simply offer them what I thought would be a solution. Turns out they actually wanted to play knights and castles. We discussed this theme as a class and I scribed a mind map for them; they had loads of ideas. We turned our outdoor role-play house into a dungeon complete with cobwebs, spiders and bats – as well as torches and spooky books to share. I also brought in a pink castle play tent from home, which the girls liked, but it got trashed by the knights.The biggest success was the jousting. I bought some foam pipes, the kind of stuff plumbers use to insulate pipes in lofts, and we used these as lances. We got the space hoppers out of the shed and had jousting tournaments. One of my boisterous boys brought in a plastic helmet, a shield and a crusaders’ tunic from home – he even shared it with some of the others! At first these tournaments were chaotic and it was the children themselves who decided we needed rules. We decided there needed to be a set place for each knight to start their charge, there needed to be a starter who said ‘Ready, steady, go!’ and we agreed that whoever wore the helmet was the one who would get knocked off their horse. I modelled the play for them, which I enjoyed, and after a few days they were able to play jousting together without arguments. It wasn’t just the boys, either; the girls soon joined in. After about three weeks the interest was waning so we put all the knights and castles stuff away and had another think.

Bringing learning into play

Transformers are the latest thing. At first I would say, like all good teachers, ‘Put your Transformers in your drawers; you can play with them at break time.’ Then I thought, ‘Hold on a minute! They actually want to play with these and after all they are only dolls. It’s small world play in disguise!’ Now we have a Transformers’ table as one of the options on our choosing chart. The table is not available all the time and this means I can use it as an incentive to get other things done. I have been modelling playing with the Transformers; otherwise the boys just tend to whack them together until someone’s breaks and then there is crying. We draw pictures of the Transformers and build them houses to live in out of Lego. Soon we will draw picture stories and write about them. What are they if not characters? Most importantly, they are characters that my boisterous boys are interested in. Several of the girls have Transformers too. At my own daughter’s school children attend forest school, which is held in nearby woodland. The children learn woodcraft; they light fires and cook food. Perfect for my boisterous boys! Just the kind of thing I liked to do myself when I was young. I took a pile of firewood, newspaper, matches, a bow saw and splitting axe into school and we had a fantastic morning cooking and eating jacket potatoes. ‘Health and safety!’ I hear you scream. I was very careful, believe me. I made a circle of bricks to contain the fire and the children all sat on chairs in a semi-circle a short way from the fire. They had to stay in their chairs; simple as that. One at a time they came out to saw and split logs under my supervision. I lit the fire and they came out sensibly to place logs on the fire, with my help. We had a table for washing the potatoes and wrapping them in foil. While all this was going on the children had clipboards and paper so they could draw the fire; we got some fantastic pictures. At the end of the morning, when the parents arrived to collect the morning-only children, we all sat around tables outside and ate our jacket potatoes with butter. This was in November. It is a requirement now that Reception children should spend 50% of their time learning outside. It should be a requirement for all children.

This all seemed like common sense to me; fun and practical things for my boisterous boys to focus on, which would not exclude the girls if they chose to get involved. I was pleased to see that the Department for Children, Schools and Families were thinking along the same lines. They published a booklet on this subject last year. It is called Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements and it is targeted at practitioners in the Early Years Foundation Stage. The booklet states that, ‘The qualities and skills that are most valued by schools, the ability to communicate orally and represent ideas on paper, are often the very aspects of learning that boys find most difficult.’ I wholeheartedly agree. Another thing we like to promote in schools, and I am as guilty as the next person, is sitting nicely on the carpet – and girls are better than boys at that, too!

Making provision for how boys and girls learn best

I think we have tried too hard for too long to make everything the same for all children. What we have really been trying to do is force boys into a girl-like model of learning. We have dealt with this issue in SEN and now make different provision for less able and more able. It is time to do the same for boys and girls. I am pleased to say I am not alone in thinking this. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) backs up this view in their report entitled Starting Strong. The report asserts that, ‘We know that to give boys and girls equal rights in the Early Years means to give them different and specific opportunities. It is not sufficient to say that everything… is open to all children, since at this age children choose gender specific activities.’In the DCSF booklet, national data from the Foundation Stage Profile, 2004 to 2006, is quoted. It suggests that boys are achieving less well than girls across all areas of learning. Alarmingly, these early gender differences do not disappear quickly; GCSE results show that they continue into Key Stage 4. Boys do less well than girls across the board. I have been concentrating on provision in the early years partly because that is what I happen to be specialising in at the present time. I also believe it is crucial that the needs of boys are met at this young age and that this will provide a solid base for them to build their own style of learning as they mature. It’s called the Foundation Stage for a reason! To recap, I am not saying that all girls are ‘compliant and passive recipients of new skills and knowledge’, nor that all boys are ‘active learners and problem solvers’, to take a couple of quotes from the booklet. What I am saying is that they are different and we need to treat them differently.

Issues of stereotyping

None of this is particularly controversial until we introduce the subject of weaponry. Over the Christmas break I was shocked to see the following in The Guardian: ‘The Department for Children, Schools and Families said boys aged between three and five had fallen behind their female classmates partly because nursery staff tried to curb their desire for boisterous play involving weapons. Boys were more likely to become interested in education and would perform better if encouraged to pursue their chosen play.’ They were quoting from the booklet I have already mentioned – with a little creative licence. The teaching unions were quoted and there was talk of angry parents and stereotyping boys. It was one of those stories the papers like to run at a quiet time, but it does raise a key point: how do we deal with weaponry?Guns aren’t specifically mentioned in the booklet, but that is what we are really talking about, isn’t it? Recently some schools have experimented with letting their boys’ role play with weaponry and make guns out of construction kits rather than immediately saying, ‘no!’ They have found that after an initial flurry of pseudo-aggressive activity the boys become more interested in the creative aspects of their play. They seem to become bored with the guns quite quickly. Maybe our instinct to stop aggressive play is counter productive: maybe it is something boys need to work through. My boisterous boys wanted to play knights and I let them. I didn’t let them use swords, but I did let them use lances. Is there really a difference? I don’t let them have toy guns in school, but their Power Rangers and Transformers all have super killing powers of one type or another. My girls like to bring their Barbie dolls in to play with. Is that not equally as stereotypical?

Personalised learning

I am going to sidestep this eternal debate and close by stating that what this is really about is treating children as individuals. Girls do tend to make better learners in the traditional school of learning and boys do tend to lag behind in this respect. We’re not going to improve SAT results by coercing boys into sitting quietly and writing. We need to give them opportunities to thrive in their own way.The other week I was running at our local university track. I was introduced to a young man in his early 20s who was doing a degree in civil engineering. To my surprise I already knew him. He was Henry. I taught him in Year 5 more than 10 years ago. He wasn’t at all interested then in writing anything down and would only read with the utmost encouragement. What he would do every time it was wet playtime was get out the big box of K’nex and build the most amazing structures – soon he will be able to do it for a living.

Steve Mynard is a former headteacher and editor of Primary Headship