Boy Trouble: some questions to help close the gender gap in English

I’ve been asked a few times recently by Twitter colleagues for advice about improving their school’s outcomes for boys. Across the school generally, and English results specifically. Give us your pearls of wisdom, they politely ask. Let us know what really works.

The short answer is disappointing and predictable: it laregly comes down to high quality teaching and learning. Consistency throughout all key stages, developing a positive learning environment, challenge and support. You know all this. This is not news. There isn’t a quick panacea for ‘sorting out our boy problem’.

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t strategic questions to reflect on if you’re in this situation – and many schools are: the overall GCSE gender gap stands at 9% and English 14%.

It isn’t easy. There are no quick fixes. We too are chipping away at the gap, knocking off 3% here and 4% there. It will take time and hard work and crucially, lots of evaluation to see if your plans and strategies are actually making any difference. Here’s some of the things I’ve looked at over the years (not all ideas are my own) that you might want to consider to help improve attainment and (that slippery term) ‘engagement’:

  1. Groupings
  • If pupils are setted, how are boys distributed across your groups?
  • What proportion of boys are in the top, or higher, sets?
  • Are you setting on current ability or potential ability? You need to be thorough and honest with this one: go back and look at the KS2 levels, not just what they got in a test at the end of Year 8. Is their current ‘ability’ reflecting their true ability or is it only indicative of their disaffection with the curriculum/set they’ve been dumped/attitude of the teacher? Is there an unintentional (I hope) bias against some boys which creates an atmosphere of low expectations and low challenge?

2. Data

  • Do you have a problem with all boys or (more likely) particular micro cohorts?
  • Have you really drilled down into the data? Level 3 or Level 4 on entry boys? SEND boys? White FSM boys? Look at sub levels as well – is it 4c and 3a or the 5a and 5b lads who are bombing?
  • Is your problem from last year the same issue as this year’s cohort? Don’t assume – check carefully. This will go some way towards telling you whether you have an endemic problem or a specific issue with the cohort.
  • How robust are your data collection and forecasting models? Do you moderate your forecasts by asking each other searching questions or are you sharing Timmy’s misplaced confidence that it’ll all be alright on the day, despite a string of missed questions on his last three mock exams? This matters for all pupils of course, but I think, given the work ethic and attitude to revision of many boys, that this can be a particularly acute concern for them.

3. Curriculum

  • Are you following a two or three year KS4? Have you considered the effect this has on male pupils in particular? Do they have the maturity level to deal with certain GCSE topics?
  • Does your long term plan build revision and memory skills into schemes? Boys generally revise less, so how are you compensating for this? Are you modelling study skills in addition to the knowledge they will require to succeed?
  • Are you doing anything radical/daft like early entry for GCSE literature? Have you got any evidence of the impact this will have on the outcomes of underperforming micro cohorts or is this just a hunch?
  • I’m not a fan of picking ‘boy-friendly’ texts generally but have you considered carefully the choices that you’ve made? Have you selected the Relationships poems because your department prefer them, while the lads will probably respond better to the Conflict section? Are reluctant readers put off from the start by having to plough through hundreds of pages of Great Expectations when Jekyll & Hyde will provide the same level of challenge and cultural capital for a much briefer read?

4. Feedback

  • You’ve moved away from WWW/EBI or two stars and a wish, right? If not, you’re wasting time and diluting the message of your feedback. How much are you writing in comparison to the output this provokes?
  • What is the most important target that Oliver needs to work on to improve his analytical paragraphs? If it’s identify word class, then just say so.
  • Avoid hedging language – ‘Next time, you might want to try to add the effect this word has on the reader, as this will probably help you move closer to Band 4’. Instead write ‘Go back and identify word class’.
  • You’re using DiRT as well? How do boys respond in improvement time compared to girls? Are there groups of boys who aren’t bothering to improve their work to the same standard as others? What are individual teachers doing about this?
  • Why not do the DiRT there and then? Does the week gap between doing work and improving it dilute the message and put up a barrier to removing those immediate misconceptions?
  • An obvious point, but do you go to the early finishers (probably boys) first? Is your seating plan arranged to allow you to get easy access to your underperforming pupils?
  • Are you giving away too many answers rather than offering prompts that allow them to work out the answer for themselves?

5. Extended writing

  • Are you modelling the process of successful extended writing (planning, drafting, proof-reading, editing, re-drafting) to remove the fear of the blank page and allow boys to understand that writing evolves over time.
  • Do you build up the stamina of reluctant writers gradually by chunking tasks into smaller amounts of time (while still getting through the same amount overall)?
  • Do you consistently allow pupils to see top quality (and not so good quality) exemplars and allow them to see what success looks like?
  • Do you provide scaffolds that allow pupils to get started but, importantly, doesn’t simplify the task so much that it signals lower expectations?
  • Do you remove scaffolds gradually over time to ensure that pupils don’t become overly reliant on them?
  • Are you still using ‘all/most/some’ objectives that give lazy pupils the green light to aim for a lower outcome?
  • Do you allow ‘busy work’ such as posters/wordsearches/drawing pictures of characters that ‘engages’ boys to little effect?
  • Do your teachers shoot themselves in the foot by making a big issue about whether pupils have a pen when the main thing is that they…get writing?

6. Intervention

  • Is removing small groups of boys from lessons really having the effect you had hoped for? Who is delivering these sessions? Do they have expert knowledge of the subject, and crucially the specification/exam questions? Are you wasting time that could be better spent with the class teacher, confusing pupils with different knowledge and strategies and sending out the wrong signals, despite your good intentions?
  • What about other efforts to motivate? A few years ago we touch a large group of disaffected male Year 11s on an away day that was meant to motivate and inspire them. We visited a local football league club, did teamwork and male bonding stuff and listened to gripping speeches from the professionals. They were absolutely buzzing by the time we got back on the coach. Did it work? Of course it did. For a bit. Then the reality of the hard work needed to pass GCSEs set in. Many of the boys went on to get good GCSEs. Many didn’t. The ones that worked hard passed. The ones that didn’t… didn’t. I can’t say for sure that the motivational day had  little effect but my feeling is that what went on in the classroom, and in the pupils’ homework time, made all the difference.
  • Are pupils who attend revision sessions and catch-up classes really benefiting from your efforts? I had a group of lads who used to turn up to my sessions last year purely to say to their parents that, yes, they had been revising at school and now didn’t need to do any more. While they were there they tried to avoid doing any actual writing. I sent them packing and only let them come back when they could prove to me that they were going to work hard.

7. Random stuff

This is not an exhaustive list. I’ve probably forgotten something really important but here are some other things that I think  make a difference with the attitudes of boys to English lessons and probably have an effect on their outcomes:

  • Do your teachers read with gusto and take risks when reading aloud (trying to do the accents of characters, for example)?
  • Have you checked to see whether your male pupils with awful handwriting have been marked unfairly, both internally and externally?
  • Do you ‘sell’ the importance of completing homework by showcasing the positive effects on the work of those that have done it, rather than lambasting those that haven’t? (although a bit of that is definitely required if this doesn’t work with some).
  • Do teachers regularly shout at male pupils?
  • Are teachers making as many positive phone calls home as negative?
  • Do male teachers act as role models, showing that it is possible to love football and poetry?
  • Finally, something you might not have thought much about.The ego of the teenage male is usually fragile, dealing with salvos of conflicting messages. For your boys, is the English classroom a place of sanctuary (a sanctuary that insists on hard-work and has high levels of challenge)?  Some time ago at my last school – an all boys inner city comprehensive – we conducted a survey that asked our pupils (who were massively overperforming in English compared to maths and science) about their attitudes to lessons in the core subjects compared. When discussing English we expected them to mention feedback, support, exciting lessons. The main word they mentioned was ‘safety’. They felt safe to make mistakes. Safe to ask questions. Safe to take risks in their writing. Safe to ask miss what they should read next. Do the boys in your school feel ‘safe’?

Thanks for reading,



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