Last year Ofsted expressed increasing concern about the educational outcomes of white boys from low-income backgrounds. This year it has highlighted good practice in 20 schools which are meeting boys’ needs

When the Slough and Windsor Observer scrutinised last year’s Ofsted report for Churchmead School, a mixed secondary in Datchet, it found some disturbing conclusions. The report, published in June 2007, graded the school as ‘inadequate’ overall and gave it a ‘notice to improve’. The inspectors said: ‘Churchmead is an improving school but its overall effectiveness is unsatisfactory because too many students make insufficient progress by the end of key stage 4.’

Had this finding applied equally to all pupils in the school, where the proportion of students from ethnic minority background is higher than that found nationally, it might not have attracted as much media attention as it did. As it was, the report went on to state: ‘Given their starting points, significant groups of students, in particular boys of white British heritage, make too slow progress through key stages 3 and 4 and by the end of Year 11 attain standards that are significantly below average.’ Not surprisingly, the local paper’s headline was: Ofsted – School is failing ‘white boys’.

One year on, Churchmead School is recording real progress but the plight of ‘white boys’ continues to alarm headline writers. In February of this year, the government updated GCSE performance data released in November 2007 to include details of pupils receiving free school meals. This showed that only 15% of white working-class boys in England got five good GCSEs including maths and English. Poor pupils from other ethnic backgrounds did much better: 36% of those from an Indian and 52% of those from a Chinese background achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C. Among white boys from more affluent homes, the comparable figure was 45%.

The findings drew strong criticism from opposition parties. The shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, Michael Gove, said: ‘The government’s failure to improve standards in education has hit the poorest hardest. We need a school system that allows bright children to succeed regardless of their economic background. We can only achieve this by focusing on the basics like getting all children reading after two years of primary school. Instead we still have a system where the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils grows as they progress through their school careers.’ David Laws, education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, was also critical: ‘We should be ashamed to live in a country where there is such a huge gap between rich and poor children. To have 85% of white boys from poor families failing to achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths is truly shocking.’

The minister for schools, Jim Knight, defended the government’s record: ‘Closing the attainment gap in education remains a top priority, and we have made encouraging recent progress. There has been good news on our efforts to address social mobility, with pupils eligible for free school meals improving faster than average. Between 2003 and 2007, pupils eligible for free school meals who achieved five good GCSEs rose 11.1 percentage points from 24.4% to 35.5%. For non-free-school-meals pupils, the increase was 7.6 percentage points, from 55.2% to 62.8%.’

In July, Ofsted responded to some of these concerns by publishing the results of a small survey of good practice in the education of white boys from low-income backgrounds. The report looked at 20 schools across England where this category of boys performed better in public tests and examinations than their counterparts in other schools. The sample included six primary schools, 10 secondary schools, three special schools and one pupil referral unit.

The report starts by accepting that the association between poverty and underachievement remains strong and that white British boys from low-income backgrounds continue to make less progress than most other groups. Indeed, one of the dominant themes to emerge from another report by Ofsted (Narrowing the gap: the inspection of children’s services, 2007) confirmed this link: ‘The biggest challenge continues to be narrowing the gap in opportunities and outcomes between most children and young people and those that are the most vulnerable in our society.’

One explanation for the gap is that a ‘disproportionate numbers of deprived pupils attend inadequate schools’, but the existence of comparable schools nearby where these boys perform much better suggests other factors are at play. The report highlights several areas where it believes good practice contributes to successful outcomes for these pupils.

Teaching and learning strategies
Successful schools were those in which teachers had high expectations of all pupils and where staff and pupils showed mutual respect. Assessment and target setting were used effectively and teachers were quick to challenge under-performance, making effective use of intervention programmes and support staff. Boys were able to monitor their own progress and their interests informed teaching strategies. These schools made good use of drama and art, and based literacy activities on books that interested boys: ‘These tended to focus on action-packed narratives which emphasised sporting prowess, courageous activities in the face of danger, and situations – often historical – where the main characters had to overcome challenges of one sort or another.’

Independent learning
Successful schools provided tightly structured support for pupils from the outset, increasing independent learning as and when pupils mastered basic skills. Teachers used journals or diaries to set targets, provide guidance and feedback. Pupils were involved in setting and reviewing targets, and were able to monitor their own progress. Additional support was provided when necessary to pre-empt underachievement and ensure standards did not slip. The schools that Ofsted viewed as successful ‘expected their pupils to complete all homework and ensured that time and accommodation were provided at school if home circumstances were difficult’. Regular, positive feedback was important, as was the imaginative use of ICT.

Personal development and wellbeing
Successful schools were aware of the personal factors that might contribute to boys’ underachievement and had strategies in place to address them. Good use was made of induction programmes, peer support and pastoral care to foster a strong sense of community. These schools monitored behaviour and attendance carefully and were aware of pupils’ home circumstances. They made good use of programmes such as Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) and Behaviour for Learning. Pupils’ views were listened to and helped shape curricular and extra-curricular activities. ‘An important feature of the most successful schools surveyed was the close attention they paid to supporting the emotional development of the boys and helping them understand the impact of their behaviour on their learning.’

Understanding and meeting boys’ needs
Successful schools invested time and effort in strengthening the relationships between staff and pupils. ‘The better schools in the survey had established breakfast clubs where teaching assistants and trained volunteers spent time with the pupils before the start of school, talking to them, listening to them read and playing board games with them.’ Staff knew about and kept watch on the most vulnerable boys. Schools maintained strong links with outside agencies and offered timely advice and support to pupils and their families.

Increased flexibility in the curriculum
Successful schools adjusted the curriculum where possible to better reflect the needs and interests of their pupils. In Year 7, several schools focused on improving pupils’ basic skills and personal capabilities, including teamwork and conflict management. Successful schools offered a wider variety of options to older pupils and ensured that they and their parents understood the choices. They offered a balanced curriculum, avoided early specialisation and kept pupils motivated and engaged.

Engaging parents and carers
Successful schools engaged parents and carers in actively supporting their children’s education, including setting and monitoring homework. They maintained open and clear lines of communication and did all they could to facilitate parental involvement. This included providing facilities for parents to meet within the school, relevant information, advice and training and opportunities for them to volunteer and take part in planning and policy groups. Successful schools arranged meetings at times convenient to parents and advised them on useful services they could access outside the school and on sources of financial support if their children wanted to stay on post-16.

Using resources efficiently
Successful schools used their resources flexibly to improve outcomes, often providing additional support or activities for specific groups of pupils. Initiatives might include additional staffing to reduce class sizes; extra coaching in sports, drama or music; or extra-curricular activities to help build teamwork and self-esteem. Joint funding arrangements with other schools and strong links with external agencies made it easier to fund and organise such activities. ‘The knowledge that staff held about the local community was an important element in ensuring the success of such work.’

White boys from low-income backgrounds: good practice in schools, published July 2008, can be downloaded from the Ofsted website