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Attainment and the gender gap: understanding what works

Posted By Neil Jones, 22 January 2020
Neil Jones, Lead Practitioner for More Able Students at Impington Village College, shares key findings from the school’s focus on understanding the gender gap and moving beyond common stereotypes to develop more effective forms of support.
In common with many schools in England, our school identifies a gap in attainment between boys and girls at GCSE. In my role as Lead Practitioner for More Able Students, I had also noted an even larger gap, between boys and girls identified by teachers as having particularly high academic ability or talent in foundation subjects. It seemed there might have been a perception that girls (as a group) simply outperform boys (as a group). As a result, one of our strategic priorities for 2018-19 was that “all students make accelerated progress, with a particular focus on disadvantaged students and boys”.
We established a working group to investigate the causes of the attainment gap, whether anything was happening (or not happening) in classrooms to cause or sustain this gap, and what we could realistically do to address this. Our investigation aimed to build on previous work and existing practice, drawing on the insight and support of the middle leaders who make up our professional learning group, while fully engaging all teachers.

Phase 1: developing our thinking

The working group developed an online questionnaire to gather colleagues’ perceptions on the gender attainment and engagement gap. This included the 15 “barriers to boys’ learning” outlined in Gary Wilson’s influential book Breaking Through Barriers to Boys’ Achievement: Developing a Caring Masculinity (2013). It also contained a ‘pre-mortem’ question: “Imagine we innovated a whole range of things to improve boys' engagement and progress... and it was a spectacular failure. Write down examples of what we got wrong, and the impacts.” This open approach led to heated and productive debate, with a high response rate and a wide range of opinions and concerns expressed.
With suggestions from teachers across the school, we compiled a reading list around the gender gap (see below for examples), aiming to identify core themes and patterns. The key findings from our reading were that:
  • In the UK, there has been a 9% gap in achievement between girls and boys since at least 2005; prior to that a gap was in evidence at O-Level and the 11+ exam.
  • This gap is the same in many developed countries, but the narrative is different. In France, for example, the gap causes less consternation.
  • Historically, almost all cultures have bemoaned adolescent boys’ “idleness” and their “ideal of effortless achievement”.
  • The gap narrows in late adolescence and, internationally, by the age of 30 males have outstripped females in terms of their level of education and training, and earnings.
  • Gender is an unstable indicator of individual student’s attainment and engagement: not all boys are underachieving, and not all girls are achieving. 
  • Gender-based approaches to teaching and learning are too often gimmicky, distracting and have no discernible effect on achievement. Learning has always been difficult; engagement comes from excellent subject knowledge of the teacher, supportive monitoring of understanding and confidence between teacher and learner.
Members of the working group visited several other schools, including one investigating boys who were following or bucking the trend of underachievement, and two using one-to-one mentoring to support underachieving students. 

Phase 2: interventions 

We asked the Director of Progress to share lists of students whose reports showed they were making both less progress and less effort than required. While this selection was gender-blind, the lists were, unsurprisingly, dominated by boys. 
We then ran two six-week trials concurrently: a series of one-to-one 20-minute mentoring sessions with Year 8 students and a series of small-group, hour-long mentoring discussions with Year 10 students. The working group consulted during this process and fed back on what we judged was effective or otherwise, from our perspective and the students’.

Phase 3: lessons learned

We learned, crucially, that we mustn’t and can’t reduce our response to identity politics; what we can do is focus on teaching effectively and caring well.

Impact on teaching

The first impact on effective teaching is that our already tailored CPD will continue to focus on quality-first teaching. Members of the working group led well-received sessions scotching myths about the need for “boy-friendly” approaches such as competitions, kinaesthetic tasks, novelty/technology, befriending the “alpha” male, banter/humour, peer-to-peer teaching, negotiation, single-sex classes or male teachers.
What is proven to work instead, since time immemorial, is excellent teacher subject knowledge, firm but fair behaviour management and high-quality feedback – all of which are in place through our school’s existing assessment, accountability and quality management systems.

Impact on pastoral support

The second impact, on pastoral care, is that we understood that our underachieving students are, overwhelmingly but not exclusively, male; lack confidence; are therefore risk-averse academically; do not feel listened to; do not talk enough in order to explore their goals; cannot therefore link their learning meaningfully to their lives; feel lonely.
While Year 8 students responded quite well to one-to-one interventions, they were not yet mature enough to reflect very usefully on their experience. The two small groups of Year 10 students, however, were eager to talk, reflect and offer solidarity in encouraging ways. Insights from participants included: 
  • “We work hard for the teachers who like us.”
  • “Extended day is pointless.”
  • “If we’re put in intervention, no one explains why.’”
  • “Interventions make me feel sh*t.”
  • “You need confidence to be motivated.”
  • “Some of our targets are genuinely too high.”
  • “It feels like the school is just after the grades.”
  • “If you share how you really feel with your mates it will all crumble.”

Phase 4: ongoing provision and evaluation

As of September 2019, we are running fortnightly after-school mentoring sessions for small groups of Year 11 students identified as being below target in progress and effort (chosen gender blind – 75% male, 25% female). These mentoring sessions run as an option for students, alongside two compulsory interventions for a much larger cohort of Year 11s. The first of these is an extended day, where students can revise together in the school library and focus on their own defined areas of study. The second is a series of extra lessons delivered at the end of the school day. 
Keeping mentoring as an option for students (and their parents) seems to give them more sense of agency and responsibility. Numbers participating can fluctuate from week to week, but those participating are very positive. Many of the conversations involve making priorities and keeping things in perspective, and we encourage students to come up with their own solutions. 
While it may be impossible to quantify the precise impact of this intervention with more able students, several students did better in their mocks than predicted, and more in line with their aspirational targets. Several parents, too, have been in touch to say that they find it makes a difference to their child’s attitude to learning. Goals post-16 are more defined. My overall hope for the programme is rather like Dr Johnson’s hope for literature: to help these young people find ways “better to enjoy life or, at least, endure it.” We will continue to monitor the programme’s popularity with students and its effectiveness.
Our approach frames underachievement as an issue requiring a further level of pastoral intervention, aimed at developing good habits of mind, a sense of purpose and the confidence these things bring. We hope these sessions will build solidarity between mentors and mentees, mentees and class teachers, and between the young people themselves. This will be vital if underachieving students are to reframe study and school life as opportunities to become excited about their aspirations and aims in life. Importantly, this intervention does not create gimmicky, evidence-free busywork for the teaching body, neither does it discriminate unfairly against girls.

Key takeaways:

  1. The attainment gap between boys and girls of this age is perennial. The work we do in schools can only go some of the way to address it, so concentrate on what is in your control: teaching well and caring well.

  2. Excellent teaching is what it always has been: that which allows students, male and female, to think. Learning is what it always has been: necessary, sometimes exciting, sometimes hard and distasteful. That goes for all of us, male and female.

  3. That said, all children need to develop positive habits of mind to stay motivated and happy enough that their actions have meaning. There will be challenges to this, different between time and time and community and community. To work out what these challenges are, and how to address them intelligently, use a wide range of data to ask meaningful questions.

  4. Loneliness and a lack of discussion about aims and habits are main drivers of underachievement and can quickly erode wellbeing. Boys as a group appear to feel these deficits more keenly than girls as a group (but not exclusively). We are in loco parentis and need to prioritise time and space for students who don’t do so at home to explore and examine how to develop successfully, in ways that are personal to them.

  5. Use your colleagues’ professional expertise and nous and encourage them to engage in contextual reading. It is alarming at the present time – perhaps encouraged by the instantaneity of the Twittersphere – how much change can be reactive and ignore lessons from the history of education policy. Before initiating any major or contentious change, aim to run it by as many colleagues as possible and get a pre-mortem. In our experience, colleagues’ insights, suggestions and misgivings all played a crucial role in preventing us making major mistakes.

Recommended reading:

  • UNESCO 2019 Gender Review:
  • Gender and Education Association:
  • Gender issues in schools: what works to improve achievement for boys and girls – DCSF 2009
  • Gary Wilson, Breaking Through Barriers to Boys’ Achievement: Developing a Caring Masculinity (2013)
  • Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts, Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools (2019) - review
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This blog post is based on a case study originally published in the SSAT journal Leading Change: The Leading Edge Network Magazine, Innovation Grants Special Edition 2018-2019, LC22 (Autumn 2019)

Tags:  gender  mentoring  myths and misconceptions  research 

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