Tamarside Community College is a mixed comprehensive college with 1260 students on roll. When last year’s SATs results came in, the staff were shocked to find that the boys’ level 5 results were 50% less than the girls. Why had boys’ literacy taken such a dramatic nose dive? What could the school do to rectify the situation? Teacher Philip Wilkinson explains.
I agreed to take up the challenge to make sure the gap between boys’ and girls’ results closed significantly by the time the year group received their GCSE results. Where to start?
It was obvious that our boys needed help in extended writing tasks and oral work to express opinions and emotions. But there turned out to be a more fundamental problem – the boys did not want to admit that they read or that they enjoyed English. It became clear that they were heavily influenced by their peer group and that there was a deep rooted ‘laddish’ culture where it was not cool to be clever or to admit that you want to achieve. We needed to challenge these ingrained stereotypes quickly.
As the Year 10 team, we identified ten boys whom we thought would be interested in becoming ‘lead learners’ – those who would dare to stand up and say that they enjoyed reading.
At the first meeting with the boys I explained the types of things I wanted them to do. All ten were eager to try to change our ‘laddish’ culture and be open about wanting to achieve. They wanted to take a lead role in changing boys’ attitudes and demonstrate by their example that you can be keen to learn and still be accepted by your peer group.
A strategy was agreed and a contract drawn up. The ten boys undertook to help implement the college policy for the delivery of literacy across the curriculum, to provide day-to-day support for students, maintain and man the wet weather room, to play an active role in helping promote literacy across the college and to further their personal development through appropriate reading material. Each boy wrote a profile stating his likes and dislikes in the college, what he wanted to achieve, his current reading and his personal goals. Their choice of reading materials was very interesting as it ranged from the sport pages in various daily papers to The Mummy Returns by Max Allan Collins, Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and the most popular books, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter .
The lead learners gave up a day off to help deliver boys’ achievement strategies at a staff in-service training day. They took a lead role working with faculties to further develop units of work, giving unique perceptions on what it felt like being taught in different subjects. They intuitively gave insights into what they found hard and how easy it is to access the reading materials and core texts. It was a big risk having students present at the training but the feedback from the staff has been promising and they have taken on board the things that were suggested by the boys.
Additional activities were implemented which included a reading passports scheme to reward keen readers, reading champions posters (featuring an individual pupil’s photograph and information about a book he recommended), a reading recovery course and a series of author visits.
Being typical teenagers, the boys were curious to know how they would gain from all this hard work, other than the obvious ways (improved grades, enhanced self esteem, improved extended writing and oral work). I offered a free meal every time they manned the wet weather room, thinking I couldn’t go wrong with food. This was given short shrift and the boys suggested a pink polo shirt. It would be ‘more symbolic, Sir’. They wanted to stand out from the crowd and be noticed.
As it turned out they got more than they bargained for! A news item in The Times Educational Supplement reported the phenomenal impact the boys have had on behaviour and boys’ literacy and how all our pupils now ‘aspire to get into that elite group’. They have been on a local television channel talking about the latest intervention strategy of placing newspaper articles above the urinals in the boys’ toilets. Now even when the boys are having a comfort break they are still reading and building on their literacy skills. The group have been instrumental in helping all our boys turn a corner and have been excellent role models in our college. Now it is ‘cool to be clever’.