Boys’ underachievement: Closing the gap at Haydon


When I started researching the gap between boys’ and girls’ achievement at Haydon, and by talking to colleagues, it became apparent that this is an area that throws up more questions than it answers. The more I researched, the more conflicting opinions I found. Are boys fundamentally different from girls in their learning? Do boys need a different teaching style? Should boys and girls be separated in school to get the best results from them? What if a change of teaching style means girls do better too, then will there still be a gap? Do boys need to be taught by men to really achieve their potential? What’s the point if these boys go on to be men who get paid more than these conscientious girls anyway? Are all boys the same and all girls the same? What does it mean to be male / female? Do I need to plan jazz hands lessons every week and spend my weekends thinking up new visual-kinesthetic tasks to turn boys back onto learning? Girls just wanna have fun too though…

If it’s not just a national but an international problem, as research suggests, shall we just shrug our shoulders and say what strangers say to me when my 3 year old boy is running off in the opposite direction in the park, “Ah that’s boys for you?”

In the research I read, I found no silver bullet. I found this to be a relief and quite liberating. I actually don’t have to become a different person in the classroom which is what I was half afraid of.

Things that probably won’t work:

  • Changing teaching style specifically for boys.
  • Assuming a boy on a high grade is meeting his target; assuming those who give no trouble are doing well.
  • Short term strategies.

Which boys are underachieving?

This is more complicated than it first seems. Are we looking at the boys with the lowest grades, those making the least progress, or those whose behaviour means others don’t achieve when they are around?

I thought it would be best to go back to the data and look at the individuals that we are talking about. There are the more highly visible underachieving students whose attitude prevents them from reaching their potential, but there are also coasting bright boys, and transactional students who’ll opt for a lower grade in a subject they no longer see as important and focus their attention elsewhere, which increases the gap. And somewhere in between are other students who for one reason or another don’t stand out as underachievers but the data suggests otherwise.

By year 11 you notice the students with the lowest value added scores are generally the ones with the most behaviour points and low attendance and it’s the students with a Growth Mindset who are academically leaps and bounds ahead of them.  The consistent grafters, completers and finishers.  They hand in work more regularly, they hand in work that they consider to be completed, and then receive the highest level of feedback because it is on their best effort.  Somehow we have to instil a good work ethic in our students early on in school and try to ensure that they end up in the latter group, rather than the former.  We should continue to emphasise the importance of a Growth Mindset and reward consistent effort over talent from the day students start.

It is the same with teachers. You don’t have to be gifted in teaching boys or producing ‘edutainment’ lessons all the time. Instead I am suggesting that it is more about using data effectively in your classroom,  not making assumptions about who the underachievers are, and building relationships with underperforming students, i.e. consistent grafting with one student at a time for a number of weeks to set them back on track. It is easy to get caught up in firefighting if there are obvious underachievers demanding your attention every lesson, but using data to shift the focus onto others who may get overlooked will be more effective in closing the gap over time.

The list attached contains suggestions for closing the gap. They are all aspects of good teaching, and you may be doing most of them already, but just focusing them on one boy per class, per term could make a huge difference. As Ross McGill said at the Haydon Conference last November: you can’t differentiate for everyone, every lesson, instead try to see differentiation as something more long term in your planning. So, whilst still maintaining high expectations and challenge for the whole class, have a half termly focus on one or two boys in each class to push them out of their comfort zone, change one or two of their habits, or help them out of the rut in which they are stuck.

Where next?

Because it is hard to identify any one strategy that will work for all boys, we need to personalise our efforts and close the gender gap one boy at a time. We need to use data to target individual boys and do what good teachers do best: build relationships…using the strategies below…

So, if every teacher worked with one underperforming boy in each class that would make a difference to over 800 boys. Small steps leading to a big impact.

Using strategies we know work, targeting them on individual students.


  1. Once a half term, select ONE or TWO boys per class that you teach. If every teacher targeted one boy this would amount to 842 interventions across school. The interventions should be mainly IN THE LESSON and not hours of outside work. The student targeted can know or not know, depending on what you feel will work with that particular individual. Have a look at the data for your classes and ensure you aren’t making assumptions about who is underachieving.
  2. Select one or 2 ideas from the following strategies:
Strategy Details
a. Feedback Good quality feedback results in 8 months more progress per year See Educational Endowment Foundation Teacher Toolkit. Ensure this student gets very specific feedback on how to improve and acts on it using ReACT.
b. Organisation and presentation If the student is poor at this, focus on getting them back on track and organising their work.

Some underachieving but very able students spend hours on the wrong thing while avoiding the thing they need to be doing. Show the student the markscheme and tell them how many marks they are off the next grade so they know to focus their efforts on X. They need proof that the effort will pay off and isn’t a pointless exercise.

c. Homework Track their homework: Pay special attention to the quality of their homework. Approximately 80% of the detentions set for Pupil Premium students are for no homework. Do they need handouts because they don’t use SMHW? Do they have nowhere to work at home? Can they do the work that day and put it on your desk?
d. Talk to them Check in with this student every single lesson and re-visit them several times.
e. Descriptive praise Praise them every time they are doing what they are meant to be doing. “I asked the class to write the title and you didn’t need prompting today, well done!” “I can see you used the essay structure this time and it’s really improved your written work”, “You took off your coat without being asked”. (See Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys by Noel Janis-Norton)
f. Opportunities to improve literacy Integrating literacy into schemes of work, providing writing frames, modelling answers, vocabulary, structured learning logs. Students LOVE learning new words, and you could introduce an element of competition e.g. “Can you include all of these keywords in one sentence to summarise my demonstration?” etc. Opportunities to use speaking and listening to inform written work. Check your focus student is using any class handouts effectively.
g. Marking homework Mark their work first. Take action if it is poor or non-existent.
h. Treat them as if they’re your own child Imagine they are your own child and think how you might encourage them to improve. Take control of their work for a bit as if you’re their parent to set them back on track. Say “I really care about your education.”
i. One meeting Having said that interventions should be classroom-based, some students may benefit from a quick conversation after class about how you are really going to try and help them improve this term. Focus on the positive: ‘You’re this many marks off the next level / grade’, ‘I really believe you can do well this term’, rather than ‘You can do better than this’ etc.
j. Making good learning explicit. Do they know what a piece of good work looks like? Ensure they have access to flow charts, placemats, proformas, step-by-step guides, level ladders and have these on display to help boys as they are less likely to ask for help.
k. Manageable chunks Give a specific instruction as to how much your student needs to do in this bit of the lesson.

Written work: Boys are more likely to fill in pre-prepared boxes than if they are confronted with a blank sheet of paper. Quickly draw a pencil box so he can fill it with writing, tell him how much he needs to do and by when.

Write the time in red pen next to their latest sentence and revisit later. They have to beat the clock and it works better than a detention.

l. Reward the changes you want them to make. One piece of research suggests boys see some activities in school as pointless. Try to reward the little things as well as good outcomes e.g. Good News Notes for doing ‘ReACT’ even if the outcomes aren’t great at first so they start valuing the process. Issue a Good News Note for using a level ladder or sentence starters. (Similar to the idea of descriptive praise – reward the habits you want to instil.)
m. Mind your language! Think about the language you use. Students can be demotivated if they feel they are getting nowhere and may be more motivated by a transactional approach: ie. Do this and get this result quickly.  When discussing achievement / underachievement rather than say “You’re on a 4”, say “You are so many marks off a 5, you just need to…” ”ReACTing to this feedback will move you up a level”.
n. Written feedback style As above, write down the number of marks a student needs to achieve the next level, rather than what they are on. “Where can you find the 4 marks you need?”
o. Phonecall home Phone home with a strategy to help if they are not doing homework / don’t have a book or a pen etc. Phone if you have seen a difference. Record any phonecalls onto SIMS in ‘Student View / Initiatives’.
p. Send a photo home. Take a photo of a piece of work that shows they are now making progress and email it to parents.
q. Challenge task / challenge wall Challenge coasting or less confident students to step outside their comfort zone by inviting them to select an extension task.
r. Community leadership year 12s Get the year 12 student to focus on re-directing and supporting one particular student. Give the year 12 student a list of what you need to see happening.