Supporting White working class boys

Written by: HTU | Published:

Of those groups eligible for free school meals in schools, one of the worst performing is White, British boys. Tom Welch has been involved in a project to discover what factors can help these students to buck the trend

This group of students has been hidden in the statistics for too long. With the exception of Travellers, they perform the least well of any group of students eligible for free school meals, or indeed, of any group of students at all. This is true from key stage 1 onwards.

In 2008, at key stage 1, 61 per cent of this cohort achieved Level 2 or above in reading and 53 per cent in writing, compared to average attainments of 70 and 61 per cent respectively.

By GCSEs, the gap has widened: in February 2011, it was reported that 23 per cent gained five GCSEs at A* to C, including English and maths, compared to 55 per cent of all pupils. How do we ensure that the education system does not let down unacceptably large numbers of this group?

Supported by The Schools Network, we worked with 50 students from this cohort who had achieved academic success at GCSE level to look back at how their schooling had supporting them. Free-ranging interviews yielded an invaluable source of student-led insight.

Recurring themes in the interviews became recommendations, written and validated by practitioners, for practitioners. A brief outline of those follows and serves as a checklist for schools.

While some are more pertinent to the secondary setting, some are clearly relevant to primary schools, as the case study that follows also shows.

Systematic tracking

We were surprised that not all schools tracked these students individually from entry. This meant that many drifted through compulsory education and left as soon as possible. Some heads we talked to had not noticed this, expecting to find representatives of this group in their sixth forms and being shocked to find none (see page 16 case study).

Work colleagues not mates

All the boys had selected, explicitly or not, school friends with a shared work ethic. This meant that mates, sometimes since primary school, who were less interested in learning, were either compartmentalised to weekends and holidays or rejected altogether.

Some boys worried about this, exhibiting feelings of not belonging anywhere, despite stating that this selection was vital if they wanted to succeed. Some schools were aware of these divided loyalties and supported the boys through the choices they have made and their implications.

The hook

Early success, often as early as primary school, united the interviewees. The particulars varied and occurred inside and outside school, but gave the boys the confidence to tackle difficult school work. Teachers who knew the boys well enough to show interest in what they were good at outside school, and those who provided extra-curricular experiences inside school, offering further opportunities for success, were praised by the interviewees (see case study).

Celebration of genuine achievement

The boys saw praise as a validation of work done well and as an encouragement to further effort. They needed to know they were on the right track and to signal the same to family and friends. Informal conversations, smiley face stickers, letters home, special assemblies and awards evenings were all seen as vital justification for the educational journey they were on (see case study, below).

A culture of learning

This should be the norm in schools with zero tolerance of deviations from it. The school was a place of work for all.

High aspirations for all

Interviewees wanted teachers to have high expectations for all, not just the few, with no excuses for a lack of ambition.

Teacher/student relationships

The boys valued relationships that were warm but professional and determined, mirroring those of close work colleagues. There were no preferred teaching styles but a feeling that teachers should be experienced and have a determined optimism about the individual student’s capacity for success.

Out-of-hours work-space

This needs to be attractive, allowing for a continuing development of the use of new technologies. It should also be publicised to all, not just disadvantaged students, and set up for all who needed, or preferred, to complete homework at school (see case study).

Detailed and targeted IAG

Schools needed to provide detailed careers information advice and guidance (IAG) from an early age, and from key stages 1 and 2 in general terms. This should be provided by a known and trusted adult, where possible, and followed up with clear practical support.

Pastoral support complementary to home

Students in this group had varying needs. Some needed only professional support for their learning, while others also needed the kind of nurturing that a functional family provides. Successful schools had a close knowledge of each student’s home circumstances and learning needs in order to use their limited time and resource to maximum effect (see case study).

Home and school separate

Secondary interviewees did not want close relationships between home and school for a variety of reasons, but did want people at home to trust the school to do their best by them. This implied clear communication and mutual respect.


Many students displayed a joy in oral language and were able, if not voracious readers. They clearly articulated their determination to succeed. Both oracy and a can-do attitude can be developed in schools (see case study).

A detailed journey to personal autonomy

The boys needed their education to prepare them for the new world outside home and school as well as helping them to pass exams, and to help them, in stages, to independence.

What next?

A focus group of interviewees continues to inform the research and the practical activities that flow from it. Regional workshops have provided volunteers for a practitioner focus group, and an email distribution list to share good practice and useful suggestions for future work.

Projected strands for future investigation include a systematic look at students’ perceptions at primary level; developing a longitudinal component; geographical differences in aspirations; the role played by sport and the arts in transferable skills such as confidence-building; and the context of the school and the size of the cohort within it.

Case studies of successful boys in this group are in development, as well as plans for individual student mentoring and alumni support across the sectors. We would like to develop a publication for primary students that begins to introduce the idea of post-school destinations through case studies – introducing the wide selection of possibilities as early as possible.

To ensure the research delivers action and not just more words, The Schools Network Primary Headteachers’ Steering Group has taken the research findings and applied them to the primary setting.

If this is your priority too, join this network to share your work, use the research findings to further develop practice and work with like-minded colleagues.

• Tom Welch is the lead researcher on the free school meals project commissioned by The Schools Network. For any further information, or to join the network of participating schools, contact him on

Case study: Rosendale Primary School, south London

By the time children enter primary school, they already have very different experiences and expectations which impact on their attainment. It is the responsibility of schools to ensure that, regardless of those experiences and expectations, children achieve to their full potential and leave primary school with a high level of literacy and numeracy.

Schools will have a range of strategies to support children and families and these are some that are used at Rosendale. The first step is to use a rigorous system of tracking to ensure that the progress and attainment of all students are assessed and analysed. As well as looking at groups within the school, such as children on free school meals and different ethnic groups, schools need to “drill down” into their statistics to look at the factors affecting individual students.

To achieve this, the head of school at Rosendale meets every term with each class teacher and their phase leader to discuss the progress of every child in their class and look at the range of strategies being used to support them. This kind of in-depth discussion allows us to be creative and personalised in some of the strategies we use to support children.

Reading is one of the key skills for primary age children. The opportunity for children to see a range of role models is very important, especially for children who don’t see or participate in much reading at home.

Children in key stage 1 are given the chance to read with older children. The school uses the volunteer reader scheme and all classes read a class book so that the teacher models reading. Authors are regularly invited in to school to talk about books. All of these things help to generate an ethos at the school where reading is celebrated and encouraged.

As well as being given lots of opportunities to read, we are also trying to develop oral skills among the children. We see all the time, when we meet to discuss children’s progress, that those children who have a wide vocabulary, the ability to construct a strong oral argument and can play with words, achieve more highly than those children who have a paucity of language. The school tries to increase opportunities for children to talk and also to hear good language models. These opportunities are built into teaching and learning across the school.

For example, we use Kagan co-operative learning structures, whose philosophy includes raising attainment through oral practice and public performance. The use of Negotiated Learning means that the children are having to discuss their learning and take responsibility for how and when they learn.

Schools do not work in isolation and need to develop relationships with the local community as well as a wider, global one. The use of new technology can support children’s drive to learn as well as keeping parents, carers, grandparents, aunts and uncles informed of how and what the children are learning at school.

The drive to use new technology is very powerful in boys and they often take the lead in updating the class blog. They upload images and text about their learning as well as suggesting links to learning activities that can be used at home. We invite our community to look at all the class blogs and, most importantly, comment on them so that children are getting feedback from a wider audience.

Finally, one of the most important things that schools can do is to provide a broad and enriched curriculum, full of opportunities to celebrate the successes of the children. Children who feel successful in one area of their life are more likely to transfer that boost to their self-confidence into other areas. We have seen how success at sport or music, for example, can help children to engage more positively in class.

• Kate Atkins is head of school at Rosendale Primary School in West Dulwich, south London.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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