SPONSORED ARTICLE: The boy in the corner?

Written by: HTU | Published:

Jonathan Ovenden discusses the challenges of raising achievement for white working class boys and suggests ways to work with those who are disaffected to reignite their enthusiasm for learning.

It is a shocking fact that just 26 per cent of white working class boys who receive free school meals achieve five or more GCSEs, including English and maths. The national average by contrast, is 63 per cent. 

Of course, a child’s success is determined by a whole host of external factors outside of a school’s control, such as the aspirations of parents and the level of deprivation they face. However, I fervently believe that we can help every child succeed. I get this determination from the fact that it is possible to pinpoint other examples of so-called obstacles that have previously hindered the path to success for so many children. Gender being a case in point. 

Seismic shifts

Once, the attainment of girls was overshadowed by the success of boys and many thought this would be difficult to change. Over the last three decades, however, there has been a seismic shift in the achievement and expectations of girls. Today, there are more females studying full time at university than males; as one example, at the Royal Veterinary College, the ratio has touched 79 per cent female to 21 per cent male in some years. This gives me hope that change can happen – and is happening. 

Consider the recent progress made by our lower achievers. Last year, the Department for Education revealed that the attainment gap between lower and higher achievers in maths at primary level had been reduced by 3 per cent. This change is in no way earth shattering, but is certainly significant because it shows that the tireless hard work of primary schools across the country can make a real difference to the lives of children.

But we still have a long way to go if we are to ensure that white working class boys and other lower achieving groups are provided with the tools they need to succeed. So, where do you begin?

Fighting the sense of failure

David Godfrey is the principal of two schools in Northumberland, both with over 50 per cent of children on free school meals. Though once a thriving coal-mining region, today, many children have been born into families where unemployment is the norm. He is, therefore, no stranger to the need to focus on self-esteem and how critical it is to raising the achievement and aspirations of this group of lower attaining boys.

'We all know that if a child starts to achieve poorly from the first day of school, by the time they reach year 5 or 6, this sense of failure can seem normal,' he explains. 'While children who perceive themselves as ‘clever’ develop a more positive self-image, those who find learning harder can rapidly develop a negative self-image.'

This feeling of helplessness can be detrimental to their long-term success as they move into secondary education and later into the wider adult world. It can have a particularly devastating impact on boys who are motivated by competition. When they do not win, they can feel like failures. His advice is to make success the norm.

1. Make success the norm

David has seen first-hand how the collective efforts of every member of staff can successfully break the cycle. 'We know that regularly providing lower- attaining children with positive and constructive feedback can make a difference,' he remarks. 

The school uses interactive learning content that frequently rewards progress to help. Teachers are able to maintain that momentum while pupils are learning from home. 'Showing children what success feels like, in my experience, only inspires further success,' adds David.

2. Make learning fun

Think about spicing up teaching too. Today’s generation of young people have grown up in a society that is immersed in technology. The use of laptops, tablets and smartphones are second nature to children – even those at the very start of their school journey.  

Online learning programmes enable subjects to be taught in bite-sized chunks to make learning a fun and rewarding experience. It can take place away from the hubbub of a classroom and children can learn at their own pace. 'Technology is a fantastic enabler,' remarks David. 'It pushes many of the buttons that motivate boys and develops many of the skills we need to encourage in lower ability learners. It also fosters independent learning, something that many hard to reach pupils struggle with. Deliver a lesson on ‘bossy’ verbs via a tablet, and you find that a pupil suddenly wants to learn.'

Technology also provides children with regular feedback and a sense of achievement, meaning boys experience an innate sensation that they are ‘winning’. These small successes lead to a boost in confidence which in turn, triggers further success.

3. Teach them how to learn

I would encourage schools to equip white working class boys and other lower achievers with the skills they need to learn. All too often, lower attaining learners are spoon-fed topics. However, this can make it harder for them to transfer knowledge and apply what they have learnt in new contexts or to other subjects. 

For this reason, it is important to choose resources that are designed specifically for children with lower abilities. You want something that does not simply revise key topic areas. It needs to help children understand the topic by breaking it down, encouraging them to discover things – and enjoy discovering things – for themselves.

4. Choose content well

Having visited many schools across the country, I have also witnessed the importance of making content and its delivery, relevant to boys. David concurs: 'We have found that pirates and superheroes capture the imagination of boys. Girls, however, seem to be able to adapt to most types of content.' Being able to personalise the content is important too. 'Personalised learning is an expectation of schools but in reality, it is difficult to achieve,' explains David. 'The right e-learning technology, however, can enable teachers to diagnose any areas of weakness and then present learning materials that are relevant to a child’s exact needs.' 

5. Get parents involved

Consider different ways of involving parents in their child’s learning. In my experience, a little help from home can make a huge difference. According to a report by the Centre for Social Justice, if parents engage with their child’s education, their attainment increases by 15 per cent. The rise is attributable regardless of the family’s social background.

One of the practical benefits of using online learning materials to help raise achievement is that no specialist device or software is required either at school or at home. This means everyone can gather round the family’s tablet. 

'Parents hold the key to a child’s achievement, so anything that offers the ability to share results or activities with parents is ideal,' says David. 'Furthermore, sharing the learning at home allows parents to motivate their children to try harder and even learn alongside their child.'

By introducing small but significant changes to teaching and learning practices, it is possible to ensure that every pupil has the tools that they require to begin to overcome some of their barriers to progress. By showing boys that it is possible to succeed, we can create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to shine and achieve their true potential.

  • Jonathan Ovenden is a director at vision2learn for primary. If you have a question for Jonathan, tweet him @v2lprimary and use the hashtag #InspiringSuccess

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