Little boys lost

How can we help white working class boys? By Jonathan Ovenden

Only 26 per cent of white working class boys on free school meals achieve five or more GCSEs, including English and maths, when compared to the national average of 63 per cent.

I know that there is much, much more to this figure than what happens in the classroom – family background, the aspirations of parents, deprivation – but those challenges do not stop us wanting things to change.

And things can indeed change. When I was a boy at school, girls achievement was often well below boys, and yet we all know how much the expectations and achievements of girls have changed in the intervening years.

Likewise, some progress is being made with the lowest achievers today too. In December, the DfE reported that the attainment gap between lower and higher achievers had been narrowed by three per cent in maths at primary level; demonstrating that the hard work is paying off.

However, there is always room to do more, and our experience with schools is showing that certain types of technology can help, particularly with boys.

At the coal face
David Godfrey, is a principal of two schools in Northumberland, both with over 50 per cent of children on FSM. The former coal mining region is predominantly white working class and many families are third generation unemployed. He is no stranger to raising the achievement and aspirations of lower achieving boys and has given us some tips for readers of this blog to consider:

1. Reward success frequently
It doesn’t take long for a child who is finding learning a challenge to start developing a belief in failure, negative self-image and a sense of helplessness – all things that can be detrimental to their long-term success in school and beyond. As David puts it, “Boys are motivated by competition, but when they do not win, they can feel like failures.”

Online learning programmes can help as they provide regular feedback for small victories when children are studying independently, meaning boys get the sensation that they are ‘winning’. Small successes lead to confidence which in turn breeds further success.

2. Personalise learning
If the right tools are chosen, they can help tailor learning to the individual so the teacher does not have to spend hours doing so. “Personalised learning is an expectation of schools but in reality, is difficult to achieve,” explains David. “The right e-learning technology, however, can help teachers diagnose issues and then present learning materials that are relevant to that child’s exact needs.”

3. Make the content – and the delivery – relevant to boys
“Technology is a fantastic enabler. It pushes many of the buttons that motivate boys and develops many of the skills we need to encourage in lower ability learners,” says David. It also encourages independent learning, something that many hard to reach pupils struggle with. Deliver a lesson on ‘bossy’ verbs via an iPad and a student suddenly wants to learn.

Think about what topics interest boys too. Girls seem to be able to adapt to most types of content, but boys less so and so it is key that the material appeals to their likes and dislikes.

4. Home help
The advantage of using online learning materials to help raise achievement is that parents can get involved too. “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.

By choosing online learning technologies that are suited to this hard-to-reach group, you can have an impact on their achievement that will reap rewards beyond improved results. Happier pupils, more engaged parents and even more empowered teaching staff to name but a few.

Jonathan Ovenden is a director at vision2learn who will at Bett 2014 (stand F346), if you wish to discuss these issues further.

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