Monday, March 16, 2009

Do boys need boys schools?

In today's Times 2 I have an article about the problems with boys and schools. It came about because of a fascinating book I read recently, The Trouble With Boys: A surprising report card on our sons, their problems at school, and what parents and educators must do. The book is written by Peg Tyre, the mother of two boys herself, and a specialist in education journalism. When Tyre started looking into this whole issue, she was amazed by the response. Parents across America contacted her to thank her for bringing this issue - fears for boys, of all backgrounds - to the forefront.

There is so much to talk about when it comes to boys and education, and it's something which the government (and all the political parties and educationalists) are well aware of. Girls are doing better than boys these days, in GCSEs and A levels, and also entering university in greater numbers. The government has launched "Boys into Books" to help "build a platform for boys' educational success" and last year launched the Gender Agenda, a national year of gender action research. There is now a whole "industry" being built on the differences between girls and boys. People argue that boys should be taught differently, treated differently, and helped an awful lot more in the classroom.

Some feminists are now asking whether people are getting excited simply because girls are being given the chance to achieve. "In some ways it's nice to see women on top," admits Tyre. But she still thinks that this is a "massive cultural shift" and we do need to be concerned. It's difficult to pay justice to this huge area in one blog post. That's why I'm going to refer you to my feature (!), ask you for your thoughts on boys and education, and move onto one thorny issue in particular, single sex education.

A few months ago I posted a piece asking whether girls need girls schools. It had a phenomenal response, and comments keep on coming. This post was inspired by a speech from the then head of the Girls School Association, who thinks this issue is self-evident: girls, she argues, do better in their own environment. Girls Schools also perform exceptionally well in the league tables.

But what about boys? Graham Able is the master at Dulwich College, an independent school which boasts 1460 boys. Not surprisingly, he also thinks that separate schooling is vital. "Is there a gap or difference between boys and girls? Obviously, there is," he says. "Girls mature at a much earlier age than boys, and in any classroom, the greater the range of ability and maturity, the more difficult it is to teach well." Mr Able is convinced that boys also learn differently to girls - more visually - and that they need to "run around more and let off steam." "Go and look at any primary school playground and you'll see lots of little girls working together, while little boys run around at great speed," he says. "There's something about the male brain which seems to find motion appealing."

But while Peg Tyre might agree with some of Mr Able's arguments (the running around, for example), she's not convinced that single sex schooling is the answer. Instead she calls for more research to be done in this area and is keener on changes to be made to the existing set-up - to understand boys better.

Dr Alice Sullivan, from the Institute of Education, has looked at the impact of single-sex education, and is not convinced that it is vital for girls or boys. "I don't think there's any evidence that boys do worse in co-educational schools," she says. "It's very fashionable to say that they have different brains and need different teaching styles, but there's very little evidence to support it." Yet Dr Sullivan does admit that there is some truth in the idea that single sex schools don't stereotype students as much. Boys are more likely to do humanities and modern languages, while girls are encouraged to take maths and sciences.

On a purely anecdotal basis, I asked a number of people what they thought of boys and girls schools. Many were happy with the thought of sending their daughters to girls schools, but unhappy with the idea of educating their sons in a boys school. "Boys at secondary school need girls to civilise them," one mother of three boys told me. Another said that she wanted her sons to get used to being round girls, and was worried about the "social disadvantages". I found this fascinating.

Graham Able, naturally, would hope to persuade these parents otherwise. "I don't see any problem with the boys here when it comes to relationships with children of the opposite sex," he says. "In isolated boarding schools, that may be a danger, but there it is total nonsense. We are inner-city boys school."

But Angela Phillips, who wrote her own book called The Trouble with Boys back in 1993, strongly disagrees. "The social importance of putting girls and boys together outweigh anything else," she says, although she does add that "middle-class, single sex schools do well, especially girls schools."

Of course, this class argument is one which shouldn't be ignored (there's so much to say on this topic!). One of the main reasons girls - and boys - schools do so well is because of the intake (i.e selective nature) of the pupils. In America, however, there are all sorts of experiments going on. The Eagle Academy, an all male public (i.e. state) school in the South Bronx is just one example. Here boys from disadvantaged African-American backgrounds are taught together in a single-sex school with the aim of receiving a better education.

Graham Able thinks that we need a lot more research on how children learn and what's best for them. But he's concerned that social conventions (the idea that boys shouldn't be separated from girls) might mean that boys aren't given the chance to shine. "We shouldn't restrict ourselves because of some social conventions" he says. "Undoubtedly it helps to be in single-sex schools."


Different reading methods on trial in Australia

This is a fraud. Such a trial was done a few years ago in Scotland with the result that kids taught using phonics ended up two years ahead in reading age compared to the rest. What's so different about Australians and the Scots? This is just a ploy to delay the inevitable. Leftist teachers WANT kids to be poorly educated. And they succeed. With "whole word" learning, lots of kids end up virtually illiterate. Knowledge is the enemy of Leftism and being unable to read is a major obstacle to acquiring knowledge

The divisive debate over how best to teach children to read has prompted the first trial in Australia comparing phonics-based techniques with other methods. The NSW Government is planning a pilot study assessing a reading program that teaches children letter-sound combinations as the first step in reading. Their progress will be compared with students taught by methods that place less emphasis on phonics and more on "whole language" techniques, such as pictures and sentence structure. It is believed to be the first head-to-head comparison of phonics with other reading programs in the nation.

In an interview with The Weekend Australian, NSW Education Minister Verity Firth said the aim of the trial was to gather evidence of what worked. "Surely all of us can agree we want the best for our kids, and stop arguing about what we believe and start talking about what we know," she said. "As Education Minister, my job isn't to find myself in the middle of internecine debates, but to try to be able to look at how reading is taught with the primary motivation of what's best for our kids."

NSW will run the trial as one of the programs funded through the National Partnership with the commonwealth on literacy and numeracy that was agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments. Ms Firth said the state's aims were in line with the federal Government's objectives, which had called for phonics trials. The NSW study will use the MULTILIT (Making Up Lost Time in Literacy) reading program developed by education researchers at Macquarie University, which places letter-sound relationships or phonemic awareness as the foundation of learning to read. The details of the trial are still being finalised but it is envisaged it will run for at least a year, targeting students in Years 3 and 4 reading well below the level of their peers.

The debate in the reading wars is over the importance of teaching phonics to children learning to read, with "whole language" techniques supplanting the sounding out of words as the first step in learning. The term whole language is no longer used, proponents now call for a "balanced" approach that teaches a range of methods, such as looking at the pictures on the page, the context of the word and the syntax of the sentence, rather than starting with sounding out the letters of the word. As reported in The Weekend Australian last month, the Australian Association for the Teaching of English has criticised the emphasis on phonics in the draft national curriculum, saying it "comes at the expense of the focus on a balanced reading program".

In its submission to the National Curriculum Board, the AATE calls for explicit reference to be made to "all three cueing systems" used to make sense of the written word. Under the three cueing systems model, the sounding of letters is the least important skill, with children first asked to use semantics and guess the word based on the context including using pictures, and then use the sentence syntax to work out the meaning. The third and least important cue is sounding out the letters.

Literacy associate professor Kerry Hempenstall said the three cueing system had been discredited as a method for teaching reading. "It has never been validated that anyone can integrate these three methods," he said.


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