There is an annual media ritual. The publication of GCSE and A level results is followed by press shouts of “Schools Failing Boys”.
The usual reasons are rolled out, such as the lack of male role models and peer pressure but, by September, the world has moved on.
Primary schools try to do their bit. We have seen men in childcare targets, more action books, increased outside learning, but a stubborn gap in achievement remains.
If we scrape the statistics a little, we find the top 20% of achievers nationally have as many boys as girls. In contrast, three-quarters of the bottom fifth are males.
The top 20% has more middle-class, Chinese and Indian boys; the bottom 20%, more working-class, Bengali and African-Caribbean boys. We also cannot ignore that of the children with diagnosed special needs, nine-tenths are males.
The headlines shout, ‘Boys Lagging Behind’. However, a more precise version might be: “Some boys are doing as well as girls, but taking into account class, ethnicity, geography, SEN and poverty. Some boys are dramatically behind some girls, but some girls are not doing so well either”.
More accurate, but not so catchy!
If, then, it is only some boys, we need to identify those who are at risk. Early assessments are reliable pointers to future outcomes.
The Millennium Cohort Study (2012) identified gaps in cognitive and social and emotional development between children from rich and poor backgrounds at the age of three, with this gap widening by age five.
Primary schools track attendance from age five because early absences are known to lead to truancy and exclusions. We know these differences but don’t always act on them.
So, what can Primary Schools do?
- Recognise it’s some boys. It is not all boys, but those with characteristics that increase their risk of underachievement.
- Recognise that some boys demand a lot of school time - boys often impact on others’ learning.
- Invest as children walk through the door - schools recognise the importance of Early Years in teaching learning routines and habits. If schools identify those children and address them during Reception, there will be a significant saving, especially in behaviour management and engagement with learning further up the school.
- Assess and address language as soon as possible - if a child comes into school struggling with language, they will struggle with school generally.
- Use what works - children that struggle with language do not understand code. “Isn’t Amelia sitting well” does not translate to “I should be sitting that way” by a low verbal or literal thinking child, who may need a firmer tone and explicit instructions.
- Involve parents - changing habits at home will lead to changes in school. Whatever you are doing to change a habit in class, ask parents to do the same.
Trefor Lloyd is a primary behaviour specialist.