There are many theories about boys’ underachievement in our education system, but it’s important that schools are given direct, practical ways to tackle it at ground level.

In recent years, the Government has focused more intensively on finding ways to close the gender gap. But have they really made a difference in reality, and are they distinctive strategies that focus solely on boys’ needs, rather than being commonsense teaching and learning (T&L) approaches that will benefit girls as well?

One intensive study is the DfES ‘Raising boys’ achievement’ project (RBA), which over four years dissected practice in more than 50 schools to identify strategies that make a difference to boys’ learning, motivation and the extent to which they engage with school.

One of the researchers’ key conclusions is that gender and achievement is a complex area and that generalizations about boys and girls conceal as much as they reveal. But they were able to explore strategies that work and identify conditions that curriculum managers need to ensure are in place for such interventions to succeed. They also identify possible causes of the gender gap – see the box below.

From their initial analysis, they grouped the strategies into four categories:

  • pedagogic: classroom-based approaches centered on teaching and learning
  • individual: essentially a focus on target-setting and mentoring
  • organizational: ways of organizing learning at the whole-school level
  • socio-cultural: approaches that attempt to create an environment for learning where key boys and girls feel able to work with, rather than against, the aims and aspirations of the school.

The case study on pages 8–10 is from one of the project schools whose approach fell into the latter category.

Pedagogic approaches

As understanding about how we learn increases, there has been much deliberation about whether boys have different preferred learning styles from girls. The theory goes that boys favor kinesthetic learning.

But the researchers found little evidence to support this notion, partly because it is difficult to analyze classroom activities in terms of learning styles because so many different approaches are used in each. However, they do identify factors that need to be in place for emphasis on teaching and learning styles to be effective.

Individual approaches

Target-setting and mentoring to give individual attention to each underachiever’s learning needs has the potential to raise aspirations and increase engagement with learning, particularly for those previously disenchanted with learning.

As a result of such attention, many boys have developed a sense of self-belief and come to realize that they can reconcile academic work with the macho self-image they wish to promote to be accepted by peers, say the researchers. But they also point out that some mentoring schemes failed because they were too oppressive or demotivating for the pupils, or because the mentors did not devote the necessary time to make the relationship work. Curriculum managers need to be aware that mentors need help in establishing rapport with their mentees and in developing relationships that are different from the normal teacher-student one.
The researchers identify pre-conditions that curriculum managers need to ensure are in place for target-setting and mentoring to raise achievement.

Whole-school approaches

For whole-school organizational strategies, the researchers focused their attention on the impact of single-sex classes. While they found that both girls and boys were more at ease in such classes and felt more willing to interact, often achieving more as a result, the students themselves did not want to be educated exclusively in single-sex classes. They also pointed out that in some schools boys’ only classes were extremely difficult to teach, and that a resultant macho regime arising from such an arrangement alienated some boys even further. Again, they identify factors for success if going down the route of operating some single-sex classes.

As for other common organizational approaches, there is little evidence that pupils in ability classes learn more than those in mixed-ability groups, say the researchers.

Socio-cultural approaches

Nearly every school will have groups of boys who go to considerable lengths to protect their macho image by not conforming, which is inevitably to the detriment of their achievement. Such laddish behavior often runs counter with the expectations of the school, but the boys involved see this as an acceptable cost if it means they can be accepted by their chosen peer group. Such disruptive behavior also gives them an excuse for failure. This need to conform to peer pressure, and to live up to crowd expectations, sees no geographical boundaries, and is equally prevalent in inner cities as it is in rural counties.

The researchers looked for strategies used by schools that generated a sense of inclusiveness for underachievers, promoting more responsibility towards their learning, more self-confidence, and an improved self-image, which all fed into raised achievement. One such intervention strategy is a key leader and befriender scheme, targeting and supporting students whose physical presence, manner and behavior exerted considerable power and influence within the peer group. The case study school was one of those that introduced this strategy. Preconditions for the success of such schemes are given in the box at the bottom of the page.

Ways forward

For any intervention to succeed, you need to ensure it has the support of the school leadership team and commitment from staff. You also need to create a culture where high expectations are the norm, where achievement in its widest sense is celebrated, and where T&L techniques are continually improved on.

While many of the strategies identified also have the potential to raise girls’ achievement, and by so doing perpetuate the gender gap, the researchers stress that they were not unduly concerned by this, because promoting strategies that were detrimental to girls in an academic or social sense would not be acceptable.
There is no case for boy-friendly pedagogies, concludes the RBA report. Teaching techniques that appeal to and engage boys are equally girl-friendly. They characterize quality teaching, and so are just as suitable and desirable for girls as for boys. Whichever strategies you choose to use, you need to ensure that at their core is the intention to address students’ attitudes, image, expectations and aspirations.

As with any new initiative, it is vital that curriculum managers ensure the strategies they introduce are brought in systematically and that they continually review progress to refine the techniques in the light of experience. You need to see this as a long-term initiative, and take time to develop the strategies so that they become embedded in whole-school practice – only then can they be sustained over time and have a chance to work effectively.
You need to create an environment where sustained reflection on T&L is seen as the norm, linked to active use of performance data to inform and monitor teaching practice.

There is no one approach that works for all – there are different routes to achievement. Successful schools are those that found strategies appropriate to their own contexts and implemented these through collaboration, rather than through imposition. They were willing to explore in depth aspects of ‘underachievement’, to understand the complexity of the issue and its varied gender dimensions, and to take risks in developing innovative approaches specific to their context.

Possible causes of the gender gap

  • Brain differences between boys and girls
  • Boys’ disregard for authority, academic work and formal achievement
  • Formation of concepts of masculinity in conflict with the ethos of the school
  • Differences in students’ attitudes to work, and in their goals and aspirations
  • Girls’ increased maturity and more effective learning strategies, with the emphasis on collaboration, talk and sharing, while boys are seen neither as competitive nor as team players, unwilling to collaborate to learn
  • Teachers’ tendency to interact differently with boys and girls

Factors for success: focusing on learning styles

  • Focus on developing an understanding, with teachers and students, of how learning takes place, through keynote presentations to teachers and students about different modes and styles of learning
  • Ensure students understand that, as individuals, they have different learning styles, some of which (such as visual, auditory or kinesthetic) may be more prominent than others, but that to be effective learners, they must be able to access different learning styles at different times
  • Ensure teachers know how to plan lessons that encompass different learning styles
  • Help teachers to be more creative in their teaching, planning and assessing
  • Acknowledge that learning styles are flexible and can change over time in response to different teaching styles and learning opportunities
  • Ensure teachers regularly reassess pupils’ preferred learning styles, and take action to keep the issue high profile
  • Ensure all students are given regular opportunity to develop a better understanding of themselves as learners
  • Be aware of the dangers of narrowing teaching approaches to just one learning style for a particular student — this can be detrimental to their achievement in the long term, exacerbating barriers to learning rather than overcoming them

Factors for success: mentoring and target-setting

  • Target-setting needs to be realistic and challenging, not simply based on historic data within the school, but based on higher expectations and detailed analysis of contextualized value-added data at the individual level
  • Teachers within subject departments need time and support on a regular and frequent basis, to set targets for individuals within their classes, and to engage in professional dialogue about learning at the level of the individual student
  • Mentoring needs to be developed within an ethos that accepts that mentors will mediate and negotiate with subject teachers on behalf of ‘their’ pupil, and subsequently challenge ‘their’ student to achieve more
  • The mentor needs to be credible to individuals, collaborative and supportive on the one hand, offering strategies, advice and encouragement, but crucially, also assertive and demanding on the other, so that disengaged students have the opportunity to protect their own image and use their mentor’s pressure to excuse their own involvement in academic work

Factors for success: single-sex classes

  • Ensure teachers use a proactive and assertive approach in the classroom that avoids the negative or confrontational, conveys high expectations and a sense of challenge, and uses praise regularly and consistently
  • Develop a team ethic to establish a class identity, supported by humor and informality on the part of both teachers and students, to identify with their interests and enthusiasms, but without reinforcing stereotypes
  • Ensure teachers use an interactive, lively and clearly structured style based on high levels of their input and moving the lesson on with pace and clarity
  • As a senior manager, give a high profile and active support to single-sex classes, and see them as a central plank within the achievement ethos of the school, rather than viewing them as an ‘experiment’ that might succeed or fail
  • Promote the intervention actively to governors, parents and carers, and all staff, so that single-sex classes can be sustained through time

Factors for success: key leader scheme

  • Be able to identify accurately the key leaders in the year group, who will also respond positively to initiatives the school puts in place
  • Enlist key befrienders who are willing to work with disengaged and challenging individual students, and who are credible, able to establish rapport, use persuasion and model non-stereotyping attitudes and behavior
  • Mould expectations and change aspirations by creating a school ‘house’ style, with emphasis on uniform, on attendance and responsive behavior monitoring, and on the school day as a time of learning rather than social activity

For more details of the RBA project see:

Download the report Raising boys’ achievement by Mike Younger et al at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education at: