Addressing the Underachievement of Boys at KS 3
A Joint Research Project between Torfaen LEA and the University of Bath
Summary produced for the final Validation Meeting in Torfaen 6 July 2001
(Sarah Fletcher, Lecturer in Education, University of Bath).
The Context of the Joint Research Project in Torfaen
A look at the web site for the Welsh Assembly (www.wales.gov.uk) reveals the importance that the government accords to raising achievement in Welsh schools. On the website, there is a record that on 4 December 1998, Peter Hain was setting new targets for boys at school;
Boys are a growing problem at school and their underachievement is weakening our society and our economy. Too many young boys in some parts of Wales are becoming disaffected and lack drive. Unfortunately the under-achievement of boys is not confined to academic performance. Boys need to be challenged with high expectations. That is why we have set a national target for improving the performance of boys so that, by 2002, the extent to which they under-perform compared to girls should be cut by half. We must persuade boys that they can and should perform better. Otherwise they will lose out on jobs and society will lose out on them."
The Welsh economy has faced many challenges in a relatively short time. Closure of the pits in valley communities threatened to annul the identity of much of the male population as manual workers and primary wage earners. Redundancy and economic deprivation have posed serious threats to identity
"The loss of jobs in the traditional male industries, such as mining and engineering, has removed one common path from school to work.. In essence society for nearly two centuries offered a Faustian contract to me. They would be rewarded by income and status if they committed themselves to arduous and dangerous labour. In order to survive these demands men sustained themselves through pride in their ability to cope and in their ability to distance themselves from their own bodies. Some pain and injury were seen as the inevitable price of survival. A macho culture was valued in which control was essential and emotional expression was suppressed." (Head, 1999, p. 105)
There has been a stunning regeneration in some areas of Wales as communities have rallied and taken on the need to adapt to change. There is feeling of purpose and the need to address problems of under-achievement in schools. In the government Circular 14/99, the focus on raising achievement has been firmly fixed on Local Education Authorities. With the publication of the White Paper "Building Excellent Schools Together" and the introduction of Education Strategic Plans (which describe how Leas set out their plans for school improvement and the rationale behind these)
Currently there is a consultation exercise in Wales relating to the New Performance Management Arrangements for Teachers. LEA advisors, teachers and pupils are all becoming increasingly accountable for raising achievement and for tackling problems of under-achievement among boys.
It is this context that Torfaen LEA decided to take a proactive stance in addressing the need to raise standards in some of its schools. Torfaen has taken a momentous step in looking outside its immediate locality to enable the teachers within the authority's schools to work with pupils and with LEA advisors in a collaborative way using an action research approach. Several of the teachers and advisors had already undertaken study at an advanced level prior to the project and this has provided a strong base.
Rod Cunningham, LEA Advisor for Mathematics, has produced several papers in the course of his doctoral studies and these have been vital in examining the interaction between the advisory service in Torfaen and the schools in the authority and in seeking ways to improve the provision of support. A recent working paper (Cunningham, 2001) entitled Questions about how advisors can affect pupil performance" looks at Rod's two inter-related roles, one as School Development Advisor and one as Mathematics Advisor and he describes the function of an advisor in promoting school improvement. He examines the possible influences that an LEA advisor has on pupil performance in the classroom. In focusing on learning, high quality teaching, effective monitoring and evaluation and adequate resource provision an LEA advisor has a strong and pivotal role to play in improving pupil learning.
Rod Cunningham concludes that advisors play a crucial part in raising achievement in schools by
establishing a learning culture in schools, working with staff to improve their teaching and assisting schools in monitoring and evaluating their effectiveness. (Cunningham, 2001)
In a paper written in January 2001, Rod Cunningham concludes by suggesting that more research into the area he addresses would
" help an LEA to measure its effectiveness and focus its resources. Knowing in more detail what each stage a school is at will prevent energy being wasted. if staff reflectivity and readiness to accept advice is not at a certain level it may not be productive to provide demonstration lessons."
Clearly LEA advisors have a major role in helping schools to address problems of under achievement
He poses the possibility of cross fertilisation in improvement strategies by asking whether boys' results in English can be improved even more using strategies that appear to have worked in maths.
The Nature of Under-achievement
Under-achievement among pupils is not a new phenomenon and it is not an exclusively Welsh problem. This does not make it a less pressing issue to resolve. As the article on the website http: news.bbc.co.uk recently revealed, "Since the late 1980's boys have lagged behind in reading and writing at both primary and secondary levels". Arguably the problem is longer standing than that but the introduction of GCSE league tables for pupils getting five or more GCSE grades A* - C has highlighted the problem, Perhaps we know the problem too well as the header for an article in the Guardian Newspaper on Tuesday August 29 2000 suggests, "Boys. We all know the problem."
The problem of underachievement among boys is an international one. The Guardian article refers to a headline from the Sydney Morning Herald in April 1994. The report written in 1998 by academics from the University of Cambridge School of Education and Homerton College called Gender and Educational Achievement advised schools to consider using single sex classes as a way of helping boys catch up with girls in exams. Various solutions to boys' under-achievement have been suggested and none seem to provide the perfect answer. Witness the on-going search for addressing the issue. Some enquiries have suggested that teachers should be reducing 'laddish behaviour'. Others point to introducing mixed ability and setted single sex classes .. The solutions suggested are many and varied and no one suggestion provides a definitive answer Perhaps it is a reflection of this uncertainty that we can see in the invitation to continue dialogue. The BBC website is currently offering an opportunity for the general public to respond by asking;
What do you think the problem (of under-achievement) is and what can be done about it?
In a recent article in the Cambridge Journal of Education Duffield, Allan, Turner and Morris (2000) stressed how raising achievement as a public issue "with policy strategies focused on target setting" had taken centre stage in discourse about schooling in the UK. Standards mania appears to be in full flourish in a scenario where
Pupil performance is seen as an indicator of school success: the pupils' perceptions of school life found little place in the standards discourse. A study of under-achievement included interviews with pupils .. The study underlined the importance of listening to the pupils' voice in school in order to focus on learning rather than on performance and 'standards of achievement'.
(Duffield, Allan, Turner and Morris)
The need to listen to what pupils have to say about what helps them to learn is not a new message but it seems to have been overlooked in some quarters. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that pupils do not feel that they are being listened to and that even when they speak, their voices may not be heard.
".. we built up a picture of these (effective) departments as places where the syllabus and special ways of working which were required to be successful were shared with the pupils. Pupils were encouraged to construct their own view of the world a degree of personal autonomy was encouraged - the course work folders were for their benefit; adequate notes should be taken because they were to be used for their revision." (Harris, Jamieson and Russ, 1995, p293)
There is no finite solve-it-all but there are pointers, nevertheless, to good practice and some of these can be seen on the pilot CD Rom produced as part of the Torfaen Research Project in 2000-1. An overview produced by Torfaen LEA in July 2000 summarised the current situation relating to pupils achievement in Literacy and offered insights from professional and academic literature for raising achievement. Jenny Grubb's guidance arising from her research at the University of Cambridge offers some useful guidance for raising achievement at school level, in the classroom and on assessment. What her research does not apparently offer is guidance with regards to single versus mixed sex grouping and streamed versus mixed ability classes. The Torfaen summary made the following points:
On these three points the virtual jury is still undecided. It is likely that each has a 'truth' within it.
The Cardiff research cited in the Torfaen LEA overview in 2000, by Stephen Gorad, Jane Salisbury and Professor Gareth Rees concluded that in the core subjects there were no significant differences between boys and girls attainment levels in Maths and Science but only in English. The report states
"Given the established link between socio-economic condition and examination success, this does make it highly unlikely that the gender gap is primarily to do with disaffected boys from economically depressed families."
So what might be the origin of low or under-achievement? There are many schools of thought and it was not within the brief of the Project to address a detailed investigation into this. However, it must be stressed that there are often many inter-related reasons for under-achievement and some of these relate to the interface between the teacher and the pupil. This is arguably the most important factor (Barton, 1999) in determining how well a pupil will perform in the classroom since the teacher is pivotal in the establishment of a learning community and an environment that promotes an acquisition of knowledge. Since teaching cannot be defined as a purely skills-based profession it is inevitable that factors such as personality and the preferred teaching and learning styles that necessarily affect how we interact as educators in any given situation. Some teachers have that 'certain something' that life-affirming energy as they interact that cannot be learnt and seems to come from how they approach life itself. It is that quality, that fundamental living out of values related to enabling the pupil to learn that is something that is so hard to portray in text. This explains why the Torfaen Team (2000-1) are using non-verbal forms of communication to try and communicate what Whitehead calls 'embodied values'.
Whitehead and Fletcher gave a paper at the British Educational Research Association's Annual Conference in 2000 entitled
"The Look of the Teacher: using DV to improve the professional practice of teaching."
which can be accessed at www.~edsajw/multi.shtml. The paper by Whitehead and Fletcher (2001), as yet unpublished, presented at the International Conference on Teacher Research in April 2001 in Vancouver, set out to examine this living out of embodied values by the authors through self study.
If teachers can be enabled in the classroom to address those areas of concern that empower rather than disempower themselves as learners and to retain their ability to embody their personal values as educators their enthusiasm and readiness to learn as they teach will be a powerful force for good.
What Do we Mean by Under-achievement?
But how should the Torfaen Research Team define the 'underachiever' in school? The definition by Mandel and Marcus (1988) seems useful here "The academic underachiever has an academic problem that is not apparently due to a mental disorder a pattern of failing grades underachievement. (Underachievers) can be found in or out of the classroom . They appear to lack a sense of purpose or meaning in their lives, although they are quite prepared to spend hours in activities such as sports, music, computers, tinkering with machinery or automobiles or simply engaged in social activities.
Montgomery (1998) is a useful source relating to defining attainment and achievement as well as developmental strategies to promote learning by low achievers. She defines low achievement 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. It is a relative concept since it is impossible to determine what an individual's potential might have been. Even if all external and internal factors were propitious and definable it would still be difficult to define failures to achieve in absolute terms."
There often seems to be no one reason for this low achievement. Mandel and Marcus' study in 1988 commented that '80% of all A.P.U.s come from intact families in which one or both parents value academic achievement and education." Can we afford to assume that underachievement is a phenomenon resulting from the break up of the nuclear family? It seems that this would be wrong.
In her study of underachievement, Fletcher (1992) suggested that some pupils are not spurred on by success. Rather, they are frightened of it. By being accorded praise for doing something well they encounter a fear that they cannot live up to this new perception of themselves. In this case the old adage "Nothing ventured nothing gained" is better expressed as "Nothing ventured, nothing lost." Some pupils are paralysed by apprehension and this reinforces the need for a relationship of trust to be established and maintained by the teacher in the classroom. There needs to be order and security.
Fletcher also points out that there can be a dissonance between values embodied in the ethos of the school and the values embodied in the home environment. Some children are not raised to be sociable but learn that to be self-seeking is the only way to survive in a harsh world. This is a contrast to the vision that is often voiced in school mission statements and leads Fletcher to ask the question "What are schools for? Surely the purpose of education is to assist the functioning of society as a whole? Are teachers and parents striving for the same goal?" She concludes "We cannot assume that they are."
It seems that the reasons for low attainment and under achievement must necessarily relate to personal as well as academic factors, if it is possible or let alone useful to think of distinctions in these terms.
Gibson, (2000) identifies the need, within 'an era of inclusive education' for educators who are involved in working with pupils who have special educational needs to adopt a holistic approach
that involves moving on from the reductionist paradigm, which provided a philosophical basis for functionalist management structures . And she calls for addressing the fundamental need for Teamwork, collaboration, interagency liaison, wider community interaction in the schooling system.
It is essential for educators in whatever share to do what they can to bring about a situation where education is being offered to and benefitted by pupils in schools. Montgomery highlights this need
"In recent years there has been an increasing concern about the number of exclusions from schools and the low attainments of the excluded pupils. Two thirds of them appear to have learning difficulties of some kind and they represent the tip of a very large iceberg of those who have equally low attainments and who are generally disaffected and alienated from school. Many of these pupils are underachieving in a major way and this seems independent of their ability."
For many years, under-achievement was been said to reside in certain areas of the school curriculum. But Amanda Barton's paper, presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, Cardiff University, 7-9 September a significant shift is highlighted "There is now considerable evidence to suggest that male and female pupils in single-sex schools have a more positive attitude to subjects traditionally favoured by the opposite sex". and "from girls' to boys' underachievement." Barton points to a shift as the "verbal and physical hegemony of boys in the mixed classroom have now been compounded by concerns about the academic hegemony enjoyed by girls." Clearly there are no conclusive answers to solving the problem of wasted potential by boys - or girls.
Understanding what lies behind under-achievement is clearly crucial in finding a way to resolve the problems it poses. Usefully, Montgomery (1998) sets out a number of developmental curriculum strategies that she has identified as a means of reversing low attainment by pupils in the classroom
In brief she suggests a need to consider:
In relation to developing particular skills she has this advice for teachers:
Lee (1998) identifies a number of principles for maximising motivation among pupils who need
Fielding, M. (2001) calls for pupils to be engaged in a process of researching their own work. Video evidence of just such an enquiry based learning programme is now available at the University of Bath.
Brophy (1998) sees the inter-related nature of pupil and teacher motivation and offers advice to teachers
Contributory Factors in Raising Boys' Achievement
Some pupils do appear to choose not to conform. In other words it may not necessarily be a failure on the part of the school to address their academic needs. In 1984, an H.M.I. report entitled "Response to Underachievement" underlined "The crucial importance of the degree of esteem in which the pupils is held by the school, as he or she perceives it .. not necessarily as the school intends it."
To engage with a study on underachievement means to engage with the meaning of education itself and the values of all who are engaged in educating students in the classroom. Research teams have to ask themselves, What really matters here? What are the real issues? If education is more than the passing on of subject knowledge and more about developing young peoples' potential to lead a productive life it seems ironic that education appears to be something 'done to children' rather then something teachers do with pupils. Ideally the learning that is taking place in any classroom is not only by the children. It is by the teacher as learner too. So when we address Whitehead's (1996) challenge to practitioners framed in terms of questions like "How do I Improve my Practice?" we are facing a dilemma when pupils' voice is excluded. If we are to address under-achievement in the classroom and in schooling in the state sector in the UK we cannot afford to ignore the voice of these education-stakeholders.
An overview of the Project Undertaken in Torfaen
Torfaen LEA came into being in 1999. It comprises 52 schools of which 8 are comprehensives and 44 are primaries. The preliminary meeting between Gareth Buckland and Rod Cunningham at the University of Bath on 17 May 2000, raised a number of issues as a starting points for discussion.
Torfaen LEA was looking for a team of researchers who would have knowledge, expertise and outside perspective on a Welsh LEA to offer advice and insights into their mission to raise pupils achievement
The Conference entitled The Gender Debate and Equal Opportunities held in Torfaen on 6th July 2000
Marked a staring point for the collaboration between advisors, teachers and pupils in two Torfaen Schools and three research-active lecturers from the University of Bath. The Conference Handout which set out possible strategies to address the underachievement of boys, began by stressing that
"Whilst having many needs in common, boys and girls, women and men, the able and the disabled, the ore able and the less able IN LEARNING (original upper case) have SOME DIFFERING NEEDS.
Effective teaching and learning
As Gareth Buckland, principal advisor for Torfaen LEA, said at the very first meeting to explore possibilities for a joint project, "Teachers are ripe for Action Research. They want to get involved and work with each other. At present although teachers reflect on their work they need more depth and this might lead to an MA level qualification in Bath. He said that advisors would need research training.
And from these early conversations plans were put together for a research partnership comprising;
The team decided to focus initially on Maths and English at KS3 and figures presented at an early meeting in Torfaen revealed a large difference in performance levels between boys and girls attaining Level 5 or above at Key Stage 3 National Curriculum Tests in 1999) The National Average in Maths for boys was 62% in Maths and 54 % in English and for Girls was 62% in Maths and 73 % in English
Comparative figures for Torfaen were disturbing. Boys were achieving 56% in Maths and 52% in English and girls 58% in Maths and 71.5% in English. By 2002 Torfaen is aiming for significantly higher scores with Boys and Girls set to reach 72% in Maths and Boys 76%; and Girls 80% in English.
Over the course of the Torfaen Project the focus widened to consider pupils' achievement related to cross-curricular issues, namely numeracy and literacy. The role of science as a place, as Ian Heyward so rightly says, where mathematics and English, numeracy and literacy meet came under scrutiny too.
The Benefits of addressing boys' underachievement in Torfaen
The focus of the Torfaen project has been to enable advisors, teachers - and pupils to raise achievement in specific areas and to identify and document strategies that work. These strategies will be shared across the LEA and part of the research will involve pupils in the reflective process, getting them to consider what strategies and approaches work well for them. Helpfully the Torfaen LEA newsletter provided a full colour supplement about the Boys' Underachievement Research Project and set out the process of collaborative enquiry so that all teachers in Torfaen might this approach.
In the early stages of the Project meetings were held in Fairwater and Abersychan Schools to explain the project. An important issue was to establish which staff would be prepared to be recorded on video either in class or in discussion. As Benita Kelly said in her wonderful article in the Torfaen newsletter
"Lights! Camera! Action! . We could see that we were doing quite a lot correctly and reflected further about how we might extend our knowledge and improve our practice. We all benefitted from having visitors in the classroom, seeing the school and the classroom through their eyes "
From my own perspective (Fletcher, 4 July 2001) I am delighted and excited to see the research being undertaken by teachers in Torfaen schools as a natural part of their everyday practice. Several teachers, Ian Heyward, Benita Kelly and Claire Wilkie have greatly assisted this Joint Project by kindly offering data from their own enquiries. There has been a striking willingness on the part of Torfaen teachers in both target schools to contribute their knowledge and expertise to the research process. In some instances this data has been offered in written for (Benita Kelly) and in others in written and video form (Ian Heyward's analysis of CAT scores). Claire Wilkie offered invaluable insights into how she perceives the CAME (Cognitive Acceleration through Maths Education) programme being taught at her school. Rod Cunningham, LEA Advisor has generously allowed access to several of his papers and video recorded the perceptions of a group of pupils in a school after he had taught a CAME lesson.
Among the advisory team at Torfaen LEA there is a clear willingness to undertake research to improve provision by the Authority. Gareth Buckland, principle advisor, will soon be undertaking research at Cardiff University. Rod Cunningham is completing his Ed.D studies at the Institute of Education in London. Pat Goodhead is already under way with framing a possible research enquiry.
Jeff Thomas, headteacher at Abersychan school has expressed a strong desire and intention for research to become part of the daily agenda at his school for moving towards whole school improvement. There has been a significant change in perceptions of research since September 2000 when Sarah Fletcher travelled to Cwmbran County Hall to talk to advisors about the nature of an action research approach.
This promising base for future development has been established in a relatively short time scale of ten months. Since the active inception of a project to raise achievement among boys' in Torfaen, there has been a change in culture in the Authority from a perception perhaps that research is done to a school to a concept that research is done by a school. It is this feeling of ownership that needs to be fostered.
This shift of culture in Torfaen's environment is already signalled in Rod Cunningham's paper (2000)
Rod's paper stresses once again the need to 'collect data at pupil level and to track individuals through the system. Only in this way can the micro-complexity of learning and teaching be investigated.
Only in this way can the effective deployment of ever more scarce resources be effectively planned.
The production of a pilot CD Rom as an intended outcome of the Project will embody just such data. It is not possible to produce a synthesis of all of the data collected and to create CD Roms to represent each video clip. Given the very limited time available for collection of data, production of a CD Rom and writing of reports and preparation for a joint presentation at BERA 2001 much has been achieved.
Original Contributions within the Torfaen Project include
we have research undertaken by an LEA Advisor as he intervenes to work
in a school with teachers
(Maths with Rod)
we have evidence of a teacher reflecting on seeing a video of his own
teaching Year 7
(Ian Heyward at Abersychan)
scores to target and support learning in the classroom (by Ian Heyward).
Advisors and HEI researchers (an initial meeting with Jeff Thomas).
professional relationship with a teacher where his learning and
motivation are improving (Rhys and Christine at Fairwater School)
a school where the LEA has needed to intervene to improve standards of
teaching and learning (at Fairwater School)
individual learning needs/interests
(Benita and yr. 7 pupil in a library lesson at Abersychan School)
project over time with a shared focus on improving pupils' learning in
the classroom (all of the Joint Project Validation meetings in Torfaen)
Intended Outcomes from the Torfaen Project
The contract between Torfaen LEA and The University of Bath for the Project gives key aims as
Plans for this are already under way in relation to a focus on literacy in the Autumn Term of 200. There are also plans to include items of teachers' own research in forthcoming issues of the Torfaen LEA newsletter jointly produced by advisory staff in the Authority's schools. In due course teachers' research into improving classroom practice will appear on a web site developed to this end.
Working with LEA colleagues, teachers in two schools and pupils therein we have amassed a large body of evidence that we believe enables Torfaen to identify ways of raising achievement of all pupils in KS3
This is offered for scrutiny at the final Validation meeting for the Project on 6 July 2001-07-05
Sarah Fletcher has been invited to attend a forthcoming meeting for headteachers in Torfaen to talk about ways of developing the ethos and reality of 'teachers as researchers' across the Authority. She has been invited to run a workshop on using action research to promote pupils' achievement in literacy at the Literacy Conference on October 29 2001. This should enable stronger networking.
The final Validation Meeting on July 6th 2001 will provide a forum for dissemination as will the CD Rom which though in pilot form can nevertheless be considered to be a significant learning resource.
Discussions are already well under way to this end and will be continued both during the Validation Meeting on 6 July and in subsequent communications by e-mail, direct contact and appropriate means.
Possible Outcomes for the Torfaen Project
The establishment of a rich culture of 'teachers as researchers' working with colleagues at all levels within Torfaen LEA to bring about an improvement in boys' learning particularly at KS3.
The provision of accreditation at advanced level for the compilation of portfolios of evidence of improvement in learning that can be shared by all those involved in the practice of education at local, national and international levels.
The provision of funding by the Welsh Assembly to support research for whole school improvement.
Barton, A. (2000) Raising Boys' Achievement in modern foreign languages through single-sex grouping
Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference, Cardiff University, 7-9 September 2000
Barton, A. (1999) Raising Achievement in Modern Languages Classrooms, paper given at the Association of Languages Autumn Conference, Bristol
Brophy, J. (1998) Motivating Students to Learn, USA: McGraw-Hill
Cunningham, R. (2001) Questions about how advisors can affect pupil performance, unpublished paper, Wales: Torfaen LEA.
Cunningham, R. (2001) Measuring the Effectiveness of Advisory Teams in a Time of Change for Local Authorities, unpublished paper, Wales: Torfaen LEA
Cunningham, R. (2000) Summarising an Investigation into Methods of Evaluating the Effectiveness of Advisory Work in a South Wales LEA. (Towards a self-reviewing LEA) Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference in September 2000 at Cardiff University
Duffield, J., Allan, J., Turner E. and Morris B. (2000) Pupils' Voices: an alternative to the Standards Agenda in the Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 30 (2) pp. 263-274
Fielding, M. (2001) Students as Radical Agents of Change, a paper presented at the University of Bath, 4 July 2001 and currently in press in the Journal of Educational Change.
Fletcher, S. and Whitehead, J. (2001) How Do I see My Values and How Are my Values Seen by Others Within our Educative Relationship? How Does that 'Seeing' Shape Their Learning and Mine?'
Paper presented at the International Conference on Teacher Research in Vancouver, April 2001-07-05
Gibson, S. (2000) Views on Managing Special Educational Needs from Special Educational Needs
Co-ordinators: A Research Report. Paper presented at BERA, Cardiff University, September 2000.
Harris, A., Jamieson, I. And Russ, J. (1995) A Study of Effective Departments in Secondary Schools, in School Organisation, Vol. 15 (3) pp. 283-293
Head, J. (1999) Understanding the Boys: Issues of Behaviour Management and Achievement, London: Falmer Press
Lee, J. (1998) The Invisible Child, London: Centre for Language Learning
McNiff, J., Lomax, P. and Whitehead, J. (1996) You and Your Action Research Project, London: Routledge
Mandel, H.P. and Marcus, S.A. (1988) The Psychology of Underachievement London: Wiley
Montgomery, D. (1998) Reversing Lower Attainment: Developmental Curriculum Strategies for Overcoming Disaffection and Underachievement, London: David Fulton
Whitehead, J. and Fletcher, S.J. (2000) "The Look of the Teacher: using DV to improve the professional practice of teaching." Paper presented at BERA, Cardiff, September 2000 and accessible at www. Actionresearch.net in the Multi-media section
Sarah Fletcher's Overview Of The Project