Tags: Classroom Teacher | Emotional Literacy | Equality | Raising Achievement | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

Gary Wilson explores the issue of raising boys’ achievement.

Most people in education are aware of the fact that the lack of positive male role models can present a significant barrier to boys’ learning. It is well known that:

  • in the home there is a steadily reducing number of husbands and adult males
  • in early childcare, pre-school provision and early years in schools, there is virtually a total absence of males. Concerns about allegations of inappropriate behaviour, low status and poor rewards, mean that this situation looks set to continue
  • the number of male teachers in primary schools is declining on an annual basis.


With a virtual absence of positive male role models in the media, in sport and indeed in any areas of specific interest to most boys, the challenge is a serious one for schools. In secondary schools the role that the male PE department plays, for example, is massively significant. If it represents a tough male macho stereotype that many boys cannot live up to, then it can do a significant number of boys a huge disservice. For them, their self-esteem and confidence can be affected on a daily basis.

Good practice? In one high school I know, the head of boys’ PE organises all of the theatre trips, makes a point of commenting on achievements other than in the realms of sport (‘Saw you playing trumpet in the school orchestra the other day, brilliant!’) and has a zero tolerance policy on name-calling of any kind, be it racist, sexist, homophobic or using terms such as ‘swot’, or ‘boff’, ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’. Male teachers have a real responsibility to present what I call a ‘caring masculinity’.

Yes, we may need more male teachers in primary schools particularly, but we don’t want men who will ‘Do’ the discipline and take the football. Much more can be done to use positive male role models from within our own classrooms too.

Peer support and mediation

Many schools use older boys in peer support roles, be they as peer mentors (attaching older boys to younger groups of boys), or as peer tutors in schemes such as shared reading, where older boys with low self-esteem help younger boys with lesser reading skills. Peer mediation teams are also developing in schools all over the country, replacing outmoded prefect schemes with systems that engage pupils in the processes of learning listening skills and mediation skills and working in pairs with bullies and victims together. Giving boys significant responsibilities and watching them grow, is well understood and frequently used.

Cross phase work

How about cross-phase work? Primary schools would love to have some decent young men in their classes for work experience for a change. The younger boys, often starved of positive male role models in their lives and in their school, love them. Cross-phase literacy work can supply lots of oppor-tunities. A 15-year-old boy writing stories for a group of nursery children is a total ‘win-win’ situa-tion. To begin with, the older boy has a real sense of purpose and audience – absolutely vital in the battle to engage many boys in writing. Furthermore, there is a real opportunity for an older boy to model good learning behaviour to his younger counter-part.

Collages of secondary school art work, featuring a photograph of the pupil that produced it, can be a real positive example of older boys modelling positive learning behaviour, when displayed in the boys’ old primary school. Using older boys, particularly the peer leaders (or peer police as I choose to call them – those who patrol the boundaries of what is ‘gender approved behaviour’), to display positive learning, can be a real boost in any school. Posters of the peer police promoting reading can, for example, give all boys a licence to read.

A positive force for good

We have to be massively resourceful in our efforts to present positive male role models, as every day a new sporting hero stumbles drunkenly out of a bar at dawn or fights with a member of his own team on live television. And we have, at all costs, to transform the peer police into a positive force for good. Does going out to the front to have merits stamped in their book represent for some boys not so much a celebration but rather a process of humiliation? It’s those peer police again!

Whatever the answers are, we’ll not discover what the most appropriate way is to reward boys and get them to have a real sense of achievement unless we ask them. School councils can be employed very effectively to gather and respond to such information.

Homophobic bullying

Homophobic language is common parlance in schools, and is yet another way in which the peer police make their presence felt and pressurise boys to conform. As such it is a fairly significant barrier to many boys’ achievement in itself and a healthy school would seek to eradicate its use.

Homophobic bullying on the other hand can be totally devastating for pupils who are gay, not just in terms of their achievement but also in terms of their mental and physical health. ‘Stand up for Us’, a recent publication for the National Healthy School Standard, is full of testimonies from lesbian, gay and bisexual young people. Many had not only been bullied in this way, they also felt that the bullying had been condoned and in some cases even initiated by their teachers. The author of the document shared with me the dismay he felt after one particular group discussion. He met what he considered to be an extremely bright and articulate group of young men, perhaps the brightest group he’d ever met. Later he discovered that not a single one of them was intending to go on to higher or further education because of their experiences in school.

The statistics are alarming. Around 40% of youngsters who had suffered bullying in this way had committed an act of self-harm on themselves, whilst around 20% had attempted suicide. Perhaps the most alarming statistic of all is the one from the DFES, showing that less than 10% of schools begin to address the issue as part of their bullying policy.

SEBS material

Schools have been supplied with materials to work on developing emotional intelligence. This is excellent news, and the materials are extremely good. We desperately need to develop emotional intelligence, not least so that we can help turn out decent young men, and develop a ‘caring masculinity’. We need to be aware that emotional intelligence has to begin with us, in the classroom.

The way in which teachers talk to boys, and the expectations that this communicates, can also be a significant barrier to boys’ learning. We do talk to boys and girls differently. Classroom observations will usually demonstrate this. I recommend an examination into the frequency and quality of teachers’ interactions with boys and girls in this way. I believe that examining the way we communicate with boys is a vital precursor to effective work on raising boys’ achievement. Teachers are in a unique position of power that can determine far more than how well a boy does in his SATs or GCSEs.

Gary Wilson is a freelance consultant. He is author of the DfES publication Using the National Healthy School Standard to Raise Boys’ Achievement, contributor to “Getting it Right for Boys and Girls”, and many newspapers and journals including the TES, Teachers’ TV, Radio Four, Secondary Leadership Focus and Working with Young Men.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2006.

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