top of page

Mind-Set over Matter

The boys are left standing as GCSE gender gap grows(Daily Mail)

Schools ‘failing boys’ as the GCSE gender gap is at its widest(Evening Standard 2011)

GCSEs: boys close gap on girls after exams overhaul… Despite the improvements by boys in England they were still outperformed by girls at the highest level: 5% of entries by girls received 9s, compared with just 3.6% of boys' (The Guardian 2018)

I’ve been a teacher for over 17 years now and boys’ performance at GCSE has been a focus for many of these. September Inset days, without fail, re-visit the question: Why are girls outperforming boys? As these headlines show the issue of boys’ underachievement is part of a national conversation.

The need to identify and confront barriers to boys’ success has been heightened in my role as a Head of Year (HOY). I have overall responsibility for the academic, social and emotional provision of almost 300 students and I’m in the third year with my current year group; Comberton HOYs stay with their year group through years seven to eleven. A strength of this model is that it gives pastoral leaders the opportunity to gain real insights into the effectiveness of the school’s behaviour policy, pupils’ support needs and the effectiveness of the interventions put in place to help them achieve their potential in and beyond the classroom.

By Year 9 I’ve witnessed a core minority of boys underachieve and gradually detach themselves from the aims and ethos of the school. Incidents of negative behaviours have increased. This includes: disrupting lessons, inciting others, a lack of effort and/or engagement with their learning, a disregard for those who want to work or conform to the rules, and more recently, challenging and inappropriate behaviour towards staff.

These boys are frequently key players in affecting the tone and engagement of the whole year group, and on occasion they hold considerable sway amongst their peers.' (2005)

The reputation that comes with this ‘laddish’ behaviour (2002) has become a priority for these boys as it enhances their image and status with their peers. A number seem to have developed an immunity to the sanctions that once served as an effective deterrent and ‘traditional’ forms of pastoral support built on co-operation, collaboration and mutual trust have gradually lost their effectiveness too.

The opportunity to research and devise a new approach was compelling. Research shows that there’s a tipping point where the legacy of non-conformity is being left behind. Behaviour no longer becomes a matter of choice but a form of self- protection against the fear of failure in a competitive school environment. This in itself can generate anger, hostility and disillusionment and a negative mind-set predicated on low aspirations and expectations.

The boys’ recent option choices are a potential window of opportunity. Mentoring is most effective when the agenda is set in an academic context which reflects concerns with learning and achievement as opposed to broader pastoral issues (2005). With this in mind the focus will be on improving academic attainment in at least one subject that is an options choice at GCSE. The initial buy-in is that this is a real investment in their future and future success at GCSE. Additionally, focusing on one subject is a realistic target where it’s easier to see what success looks like, mentoring will focus on sharing and trialing explicit strategies. Ideally this will act as a catalyst.

The mentor’s role will be to establish a rapport with the subject teacher as well as the mentee. Mentors will mediate and negotiate with subject teachers on behalf of ‘their’ mentee and subsequently challenge and encourage them to achieve more. They will support and encourage colleagues to monitor and engage with the mentees in lessons and identify and recommend academic interventions where appropriate. An additional bonus is that funding this becomes more viable to.

So who will deliver this? Research advocates mentors being independent of the teaching staff or not teaching the mentee as a minimum. Resourcing implications mean that this doesn’t happen until Year 11 in many schools – more time for behaviours to become ingrained, aspirations to be lowered and the likelihood of poor GCSE results increased. The same research also refers to a golden age of protected time for attached staff to deliver interventions as well as thresholds being lower and more readily available for external agencies such as Connexions and The National Mentoring Network.

Teaching in 2019 requires pragmatism, realism and resourcefulness. In the initial phase both the Assistant Head of Year and I will mentor one key leaders each. Glass half full - our prior knowledge and understanding could be an advantage. We can also act as the fall-guy and ‘take’ responsibility where mentees feel that their credibility could be challenged or compromised with their peers. The ideal scenario would be for this to have a ripple effect on others as it implicitly helps promote more of a culture where it’s ‘ok’ to work and want to succeed.

Ann Roberts

Comberton Village College


Jackson, C. (2002) ‘Laddishness’ as a Self-Worth Protection Strategy, Gender and Education,

Jackson, C. (2003) Motives for ‘Laddishness’ at School: fear of failure and fear of the ‘feminine’, British Educational Research Journal Ofsted (2008), Good practice in re-engaging disaffected and reluctant students in secondary schools

Skelton, C. (2001) Schooling the Boys: Masculinities and primary education, Buckingham: Open University Press

Skelton, C. (2003) Typical boys? Theorising masculinity in educational settings, in B. Francis & C. Skelton (eds) Investigating Gender: Contemporary Perspectives in Education, Buckingham: Open University Press

Skelton, C. & Francis, B (2003) Boys and Girls in the Primary Classroom, Buckingham: Open University Press

Younger, M & Warrington, M (2005) Raising Boys Achievement: University of Cambridge Faculty of Education Research Report RR636)

bottom of page