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How can we address the issue of Boys’ Underachievement at Hanham High School?

Report for policy implementation by Emma Kirby


In this assignment I will aim to set out my understanding of underachievement and why it is important educationally and to me in the context of others’ work. I will then present some evidence to show that there is a problem of boys’ underachievement at Hanham High School and explain the enquiry process undertaken by a Working Party at the school between September 2002 and June 2003. Then follows a review of some of the literature available on a few strategies that schools facing underachievement may choose to adopt. I then summarise what I, after sitting on the Working Party and after interviewing boys on the subject, conclude to be some of the possible causes of underachievement of boys at Hanham High School. Finally, I explain the outcome of the research and the strategies that the Working Party has decided to trial on a whole school basis from September 2003.

Context for Undertaking this Enquiry.

I am a Modern Foreign Languages teacher at the end of my second year of teaching. I began at Hanham High School in September 2001 as a Newly Qualified Teacher. I tend to adopt an Action Research approach to my Educational Enquiries, a term developed by the social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) in the 1940’s. I also find myself guided by McNiff and Whitehead’s work. Whitehead believes in the notion of a ‘living educational theory’ in which the ‘I’, in my case the ‘teacher-practitioner’ must be kept at the centre of educational research. McNiff rejects more traditional styles of research that do research ‘on’ rather than ‘with’. I am a firm believer in Teacher Research with teachers working individually or collaboratively to undertake an enquiry to inform and influence their own and others’ teaching and learning.

The Deputy Head was looking for teachers to join the Boys’ Underachievement Working at school and having an interest in this area, I volunteered. Initially, the brief was to, by Christmas, form some whole-school strategies for addressing the problem of underachievement at Hanham High School. Almost immediately after only a couple of meetings we knew that a Christmas deadline was unrealistic especially if we wanted to carry out some of the things we discussed in the first few meetings for example the interviewing of boys about there perception of underachievement and possible reasons why boys underachieve in certain areas. This sort of research which we anticipated would take the form of interviews and questionnaires would take time to prepare and execute and we felt that such an important project deserved not to be rushed. What is underachievement?

I do not believe that low achievement and underachievement are the same thing. Low achievement implies that the person, in this case a pupils, does not achieve very highly but that may be consistent with what is perceived to be his / her ability. For example, he / she may only be capable of an F grade at GCSE and may achieve it. The grade is low but is as high as the pupil is able to go according to what is deemed to be his / her ability based on previous examinations and years of schooling. Underachievement is when a pupil is deemed to be capable of a particular grade, high or low, but does not reach that grade for what ever reason. A pupil who has been identified as capable of a Grade C at GCSE but obtains an E grade would be an underachiever. A pupils’ capability is defined by teachers and the pupils’ previous performance.
However, Diane Montgomery (1998, page v) uses the term ‘low achievement’ and defines it as ‘the extent to which we fall short of the goals we set, or are set for us, which we might reasonably be expected to achieve given our age and ability’ thus implying underachievement. I agree with her definition but would apply it to underachievement and will continue to throughout this assignment.

Educationally, why does it matter?

One visit to the DfES website and the importance to the Government’s of raising standards in English schools is clear. The introduction of the Key Stage 3 Strategies in English, Maths and other subjects has the notion of raising standards at its heart. Unfortunately, academic achievement is the gauge by which success of schools is measured although the Government is beginning to take into consideration the Value-added factor and although league tables have been abolished in Scotland they still exist in England and while they do and are published, schools will continue to be judged against each other. Fletcher (2001) discusses an article in the Cambridge Journal of Education (2000) by Duffield, Allam, Turner and Morris who say that ‘pupil performance is seen as an indicator of school success’.
From the view of what effect is underachievement having on individuals and schools and why does it matter, my answer is as follows, the nature of teaching and the ethos of teachers is quite simply that they want to bring out the best in individual pupils and that cannot be happening if some pupils are underachieving. Teaching is more than just passing on subject knowledge; it is about educating a young person and equipping them with the skills and qualities necessary for dealing with life when they leave school. Underachievement for some pupils may cause them to think that are of low-ability. Montgomery (1998, page 158) discussing Cooper’s work (1984) says that as a result pupils have diminished self-esteem and motivation to work. She continues by mentioning Wilson and Evans (1980) who make the link between low self-esteem and disruptive behaviour and says that ‘the more difficult and disruptive the behaviour the lower the sense of self-esteem has been found to be’. Disruptive behaviour in the classroom can have a detrimental effect on all learners, those who underachieve as well as those who don’t. There may well be wider implications for society as a whole in that underachieving boys will become underachieving men who won’t be able to contribute fully to society and as Hain (4/12/98 on www.wales.gov.uk) said in Fletcher (2001) it ‘may weaken our society and economy’.

How do we know that boys are underachieving at Hanham High School?

In my Year 9 French Middle set the pupils are expected by the school to achieve an average National Curriculum level in all four skills of Level 4 the breakdown was as follows;
No of Boys % of Boys No of Girls % of Girls
Level 3 6 27.3% 1 7.7%
Level 4 13 59.1% 8 61.5%
Level 5 3 13.6 4 30.8%
Total 22 100% 13 100%

This evidence shows that although nearly 60% of boys are reaching the target of Level 4 and 13.6% are over-achieving, nearly 1/3 of boys in the class are underachieving. The figures for girls achieving a Level 4 are similar but only 7.7% of girls are underachieving and almost 1/3 are over-achieving. Obviously, the subject may have some bearing on performance and certainly enjoyment and interest in the subject but I am not concerned at this moment with looking at subject specific underachievement.

Boys are also consistently under-performing in other areas of the school and at different levels e.g. Year 7 and 8 tests, Year 9 NCT’s and at GCSE. A summary document of the 2002 results show that in 2002, boy’s performance in the GCSE exams showed a drop on previous years in those achieving 5+ A*-C grades while girls improved slightly to the highest percentage in three years. The gap between boys and girls closed significantly in 2001 but widened again in 2002 to the extent that 18% more girls than boys achieved in the 5+ A*-C category.

An analysis of the Year 8 Progress Checks (1/11/02) shows that 77.6% of girls are predicted a level 5 or above at the end of Key Stage 3 compared to 71.5% of boys.

During the Year 11 Awards Assembly at Hanham High School which recognises Academic Progress and Effort, 46% of the awards went to boys and 54% to girls.

In an article in the TES (11/0703) Michael Shaw writes that at a national ‘the gap between the number of boys an girls achieving 5 A* - C grades at GCSE has remained steady at 10% in recent years.

Enquiry Process

The Working Party began by discussing our own classroom experiences of whether boys are underachieving, if so in which areas, what are the factors of why they are underachieving and if there are any strategies we use as practicing teachers to enable boys to achieve better. During the research process I suggested asking the girls for their views but the Working Party decided that the focus should be on the boys. If we had asked then maybe are recommendations for September 2003 would be different. This is something that must be considered when evaluating the trial and girls ought to be consulted with regards to how they have felt about being taught separately. We used a range of methods during the process, one member attended a course by Jeff Hannan, we read a number of articles and case studies, both local and national and we also interviewed all the boys on Years 10 and 11 as well as piloting the questionnaire with a small number of Year 8 boys. Some members of the Working Party also analysed/observed their own classes using a tally chart which isn’t the most effective way of observing behaviour in a class but resources were scarce. The research until was excluding probably the most important source of knowledge about why boys underachieve – the boys themselves. The group devised a series of questions aimed at gauging the boys understanding of over / underachievement. The questionnaire also asked pupils in what areas of the curriculum they thought boys or girls achieved better and why and if there are any areas where they achieve equally well. It then asked the pupils what they like and dislike about different subjects, what they find most interesting in school and finally what would help them to achieve better. The questionnaire was piloted with a small group of Year 8 boys and was then given to all Year 10 and 11 boys to complete. The Working Party then identified 5 lower, middle and higher attaining boys in Year 10 and 11 (a total of 30 pupils) and passed on the suggested names to Subjects Leaders to see if they agreed with the names or had any other suggestions. When the names had been finally agreed on the boys were invited to a group interview. Obviously boys were not aware of which category they fell into and the interview groups were mixed. The Working Party considered a mixture of group and individual interviews but because of time restraints, the cost of releasing teachers from classes to carry out the interviewing and also because it was felt that the boys may be more likely to speak a little more freely the interviews were conducted in groups of 5 and were videoed.

Context of the School

Hanham High School is a state school on the outskirts of Bristol although in the authority of South Gloucestershire, the fourth worst funded local authorities in Britain. The 2002 A* - C GCSE results are 44% and remained unchanged from the previous year. Although the area is quite affluent, many parents are self employed, working class people who have not necessarily attended university and there is a lack of appreciation of education amongst pupils and a feeling of, as one of my Year 7 boys said to me last year whilst the topic of aiming high, ‘my mum didn’t go to college Miss and she’s got a good job’. On a few occasions boys have told me that it doesn’t matter what they get in their GCSE’s as they are going to join their father or uncle in the family business.

Literature review

There is such a huge range of literature available on this subject and so identifying appropriate sources was not a problem. Bleach’s book was recommended to me and contains a number of fairly recent case studies in British schools and was therefore particularly relevant. The Ofsted publication is very recent and is obviously written by experienced professionals and bases on visits to a large number of schools. The school based data was necessary to give a picture of the situation at Hanham High School. I tried not to rely on older literature as the degree to which boys’ are underachieving both nationally and at Hanham varies year to year.

In a very recent Ofsted document (2003, page 5) research findings suggest that ‘boys and girls tend to achieve better GCSE results in single-sex schools’. The report (2003, page 5) explains that interestingly however that ‘the effect of single-sex grouping in mixed schools is variable, with some marginal gains reported but other unsuccessful examples’. One of the successful examples Shenfield High School, Essex where, since 1994, boys and girls have been taught separately in every subject except GCSE options at Key Stage 4 and also at Key Stage 5. It was the former head, Dr. Peter Osborne, who looking at the findings of Professor Michael Barber of Keele University who reported that “despite 70% of teacher time being given to the boys, and despite girls professing to feelings of academic inferiority compared to the boys, girls were achieving better results that boys in most GCSE subjects” (Bleach, 2000, page 158). Government pressure to improve results led to a decision to adopt a whole school single-sex class policy although pupils would continue to register together and mix at recreational times so as not to lose the social benefits of mixed-sex schooling. Since then exam results have increased and the project continues.

Clark (1998, page 25/6) includes some interesting opinions of students on single sex setting within a mixed school. Clark found that generally the girls preferred to be taught in a single sex class as they no longer felt “embarrassed” about speaking in class and getting it wrong, some felt they “learnt more when the boys weren’t there” and others “enjoyed it more with just the girls”. However, Clark also says that “some girls thought that teachers made lessons more fun in a mixed situation because this was essential to retain the boys’ interest, but in an all girls’ group could ‘get away with’ more academic work”. The boys’ opinion of single sex classes was much more mixed with some feeling “less inhibited” in an all boys setting and some not liking it. Whilst reading a display on Boys Underachievement at the Summer School at the University of Bath I was interested to speak to a teacher who works in Middle Years Education in Newport Pagnell who after telling her about the strategies we were going to put into place for September commented that in her experience the girls hated being taught separately from the boys, so although it may be benefiting the boys it may well be at the expense of the girls. Obviously with such mixed research available we had to try something that was much more focus on our own school. So in November 2002 we began with a very informal survey to try to gauge he amount of time that our teachers spent dealing with boys in the classroom.

The study consisted of the members of the working party using a tally chart to note the number of times they had to speak to the boys and girls in their class about discipline and academic progress. Although we recognised that this was not the most scientific form of research, resources were scarce and it was not possible to take staff off timetable to allow them to observe other teachers. All staff involved agreed that the results are not completely reliable because the action of stopping the make a note on a piece of paper took the teachers attention away from the class and may have had an impact on the pupils behaviour because they seemed to think that it was their behaviour that was being monitored. However, one teacher observed that in a Year 7 English class, discipline was taking up 50% of the teachers time and another said that in his Year 10 English class boys were spoken to twice as many times as girls about behavioural issues. In a higher ability Year 7 English class the boys and girls were spoken to an equal numbers of times regarding behaviour and academic progress. Across the board it seemed that teachers were reporting an equal amount of interaction with pupils regarding their academic progress but a higher amount of interaction when teachers had to speak to boys about the behaviour. This highlighted to us the enormous amount of time that boys demand from teachers whether it is in terms of classwork or by behaving badly. It seemed to us that by teaching boys and girls separately then it would do the following;

* Take away the audience from both the boys and the girls
* Enable teachers to use teaching and learning strategies suitable to the audience
* Create a more boy-focused environment

In September 2002 the school adopted a seating plan policy in all classes, except technology and PE where pupils are not using seated for long. The idea behind it was that often conflict arises over where pupils want to sit and pupils refusing to sit where the teacher asks them to sit. However, through being a tutor and regularly talking to pupils as well as hearing comments like ‘save me a seat in ……’ I know that the policy is not being adhered to in all areas. By allowing pupils to choose who they sit next to they are likely to choose a friend who may be of a similar ability and in our experience two friends together are more likely to talk and not concentrate on the class. Noble in Bleach (1998, page 33) states that “seating underachieving boys next to others of similar disposition created a comfortable under-achieving ghetto for them in which negative attitudes towards effort were constantly reinforced”. Ryder in Bleach (1998, page 144) raises the questions that boys and girls learn in very different ways and that they may benefit from sitting together. He suggests that girls may set an example allowing boys to “re-examine” their behaviour. An Ofsted report ‘Boys’ Achievement in Secondary Schools (2003) comments that ‘benefits arise from teachers’ deliberate control of seating and grouping arrangements and the planning of activities that encourage boys and girls to learn from each other’. Frater in Bleach (1998) attributes the well above national average GCSE English grades and narrow gap between girls and boys results at one school to the departments’ explicit policy of boy/girl seating plan.

The Ofsted document (2003, page 3/ 4) clearly states that features of good teaching include “a sprightly pace” and that “boys often respond better to lessons that have a clear structure and a variety of activities”. Noble in Bleach (1998, page 34) says that “boys enjoy short-term tasks in which they are engaging with others” and Shaw (2003) in an article in the TES agrees by saying that common features of school where boys succeed are “lessons with short-term objectives”. On the DfES website (http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk /genderandachievement/strat/strat_3.3/ 30/10/02) one approach adopted by schools in a attempt to raise achievement is “to ensure that lessons are well planned with clear objectives, pace and the provision of tightly related activities”. Many of these strategies are commonplace in schools and are deeply rooted in the Government Strategies e.g. Key Stage 3 Literacy / Numeracy Strategy and the Foundation Subject Strategies.

What are the outcomes of the research?

The Working Party has established that there is a problem of boys’ underachievement at Hanham High School and I have explained the process that we undertook to try and find some suggested strategies for raising achievement. I personally have reflected on a lot of literature concerned with underachievement both in this country and abroad and have studies a number of specific case studies. Of course it is worth here thinking back to and pinpointing the some of the reasons why boys underachieve at Hanham High School namely;

1) Poor behaviour in class, often caused by showing off in front of peers particularly girls or by feeling embarrassed about doing well in front of girls
2) Poor concentration skills, often because pupils are sat next to a friend, because the task is too long or because the lesson is not fast paced
3) Poor attitude towards learning reinforced by family background, a tricky one but all the school can aim to do is promote a culture of learning, provide a positive learning environment and make pupils want to learn by providing well structured and interesting lessons

The head teacher wanted some short whole school strategies that could be implemented to try to raise boys’ achievement to which the Working Party responded with the following suggestions;

1) Based on the overwhelming support for such policies from a range of sources of research, the Working Party decided to take the existing whole school seating plan policy one stage further and ask teachers to wherever possible to seat a boy next to a girl.
2) A trial of single sex teaching. Obviously it would be impossible and irresponsible to launch this as a whole-school policy and so volunteers were sought from Departments willing to trial this model from September 2003. The Music Department volunteered to trial it with Year 9 and the Modern Foreign Languages department volunteered to trial it with Year 10.
3) The most insightful suggestions came from the boys themselves who through the questionnaires and interviews made it clear that one of the hardest things about DT and Geography in particular where the long deadlines that they were given for doing coursework. They felt they were unable to manage their time properly which usually meant that they were rushing to hand it in on time or that it was handed in late and not to the standard of which they are capable. They suggested that by breaking the coursework into smaller chunks with shorter deadlines that it would be more manageable.

The boys also felt that the reasons why they were sometimes disruptive in class or not working to the best of their ability is because they were bored. They explained that they found it particularly hard to concentrate for long periods of time and felt that if the lessons could include short well-focused tasks and be well-paced then they would find it easier to concentrate and would probably work better. Therefore from September 2003 staff will be encouraged to make classes fast paced, with short focused tasks and to make deadlines for coursework realistic but not too long. Many staff already do this but for some it may be harder to implement. This could depend on the nature of the subject or on the teaching style of the teacher or how long they have been teaching so the school will have to be aware of the fact that some staff may require extra support or training.


The strategies suggested by the Working Party by no means a quick fix to the issue of boys’ underachievement at Hanham High School nor do we pretend to have established the causes of it. We have simply decided to trial some strategies that have been tried in others schools and worked but may or may not work in our own situation. We continue along the Action Research cycle of trying some ideas, assessing their effectiveness, disregarding or adapting those that don’t work and possibly trying some others. The Working Party at Hanham is still yet to established procedures and criteria for the evaluation of the success of the measures we are about to take and it may take years for the evidence to become available as underachieving boys move through the school and take external examinations which gauge achievement. However, it can also of course be done by teachers and through internal assessment. Of course in wider educational terms we ask, how can the research undertaken at Hanham High School enable other teachers in other schools to raise achievement? Hopefully, the enquiry process that has been going on since September 2002 and is still going on can be used by others who find themselves in a similar situation. Obviously the situation will be slightly different in every school and teachers reading this research should do so objectively. Teachers must be careful not to confuse underachievement with low achievement and the extent to which boys are underachieving will vary in other schools. The socio-economic background of another school may well differ from that of Hanham High School and therefore possibly the underlying reasons for underachievement. I hope that this assignment will highlight some of the literature available on the subject making it more accessible to teachers with an interest in this subject.
The final word should go to Louise Stoll who says that ‘there can be no change without dialogue’. Hopefully, this research will continue to create dialogue in our school and others, from which only change for the better can come.


Brophy, J. (1998) Motivating Students to Learn, USA: McGraw Hill
Bleach, K., (1998) Raising Boys’ Achievement in Schools, Stoke-On-Trent: Trentham Books
Brenner, R., (2003) Getting Around Hawthorne accessed on 15/11/03 on www.chacocanyon.com/pointlookout/021002.shtml
Clark, A., (1998) Gender on the Agenda –factors motivating boys and girls in MFL’s, London: CiLT
Coombs, S. and Smith, I., (2002 in press) The Hawthorne Effect: Is it a help or a hindrance in social science research?
DfES, (2002) Gender and Achievement, accessed on 30 / 08/03 on http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk /genderandachievement/strat/strat_3.3/
Fletcher, S., (2001) Addressing the Underachievement of Boys at KS3 – A Joint Research Project between Torfaen LEA and the University of Bath, paper presented at BERA (September 2002) University of York
Hanham High School, S. Gloucestershire LEA (2002), Analysis of Year 8 Progress Check
Hanham High School, S. Gloucestershire LEA (2002), Analysis of Year 11 Awards Assembly
Montgomery, D., (1998) Reversing Lower Attainment, London: David Fulton Publishers Ltd
Ofsted, (2003) Boys’ Underachievement in Secondary Schools, London: Ofsted Publications Centre
Shaw, M., (2003) Ways Through Laddish Culture, article in TES 11/07/03Bibliography
Fletcher, S., (1992) Underachievement in Modern Languages to 16+, M.A. Dissertation successfully submitted to The Institute of Education, University of London
Francis, B., (2000) Boys, Girls and Achievement – Addressing the Classroom Issues, London: RoutledgeFalmer
Jones, B., and Jones, G., (2000) Boys’ Performance in Modern Foreign Languages – Listening to Learners, London: CiLT
Martino, W., and Meyenn, B., (2001) What About The Boys? – Issues of Masculinity in Schools, Buckingham: Open University Press
McNiff, J., (1988) Action Research - Principles and Practice, London: Routledge
Raising Boys’ Achievement in South Gloucestershire Schools, (1999) Report from South Gloucestershire Council
Whitehead, J., (1993) The Growth of Educational Knowledge – Creating Your Own Living Educational Theories, Bournemouth: Hyde Publications



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