JUDE BARBACK looks at what some schools are doing to address the growing national problem of boys’ underachievement in education.
Adam* was top in his class at maths at his school on the Kapiti Coast, so I learn from his mother, who is my new hairdresser. In the course of a haircut and colour, I learn that the pair recently moved to the Bay of Plenty. I felt compelled to ask whether Adam was still one of the best mathematicians in his new class. “He is now,” was the pointed response. Adam, it transpired, hadn’t had a great start at his new school, Te Akau ki Papamoa School, a co-ed primary school in Bay of Plenty suburb Papamoa. The different and less-structured teaching style of his new female teacher had not worked well for Adam and his maths had slipped.
Fortunately for Adam – and his mother – the school recognised that there were a number of boys not performing as well as they should be and set about instigating change. The school set up a boys’ class and well-known teacher, Barry Allen, was coaxed out of retirement into establishing the class.
Allen is an expert when it comes to educating boys. With three sons and over 42 years’ experience, it came as no surprise that Allen was awarded a Paul Harris Fellow from Rotary International for services to the community.
The former principal of Burnham Primary School, based at Burnham Army Camp in Christchurch, led an all boys’ Year 8 class at Tauranga Intermediate School for six years before leaving at the end of 2009 to “semi-retire”. However, it wasn’t long before Allen was back in the classroom. After a stint of relief teaching at Te Akau ki Papamoa School, he was asked by principal, Bruce Jepsen to teach a boys’ class.
One of Allen’s main misgivings about boys’ classes he had taught in the past was that they were often treated as ‘dumping grounds’ for boys with behavioural problems who caused disruption in mainstream classes. Eager to avoid this happening at Te Akau ki Papamoa, Allen and Jepsen worked together to establish a “real boys’ class”. The process involved applying a ‘whole learner’ approach to the underlying principles of the class, taking into account the mental, physical, self-conceptual, and relational aspects of the individual. Jepsen says that many boys are “similar but different” in the way they learn and the boys’ class is all about achieving the most suitable learning style or preference for the students in order to get the best results.
With the fundamental principles sorted, Jepsen and Allen then identified potential students for the class. Unlike other models, it wasn’t about putting all the unruly boys in the same boat.
“They have to have willingness to learn,” says Jepsen.
Many parents are also keen for their sons to be part of the class. Parents are an integral part of the process, and the class is co-constructed with their input.
The school also held ‘significant male’ workshops where the fathers, uncles, or neighbours came along to discuss what is most important to the boys. Jepsen says the most common answers revolved around spending time with their dad or father figure; boys said they enjoy playing, wrestling, and reading together.
Creating a better understanding of what is important to the boys prompted a greater emphasis on building relationships within the class, helping the boys to engage more deeply with their learning. The feedback from the boys, their parents, and the significant males also supported research that shows a greater need for more physical education for boys. As a result, the entire class goes for a run at the start of each school day, helping to lower their testosterone levels so they are more ready to learn and absorb subsequent lessons.
Sport is an important aspect of the class. In addition to focused time with the school’s sports coordinator, the boys visit the local Snap gymnasium every Friday. Snap is a sponsor of the boys’ class and has helped provide sporting kit for every member.
It seems Snap is not the only organisation eager to attach themselves to the class. Jepsen informs me that furniture manufacturer Furnware New Zealand is currently working with the class to create the best furniture for an ideal boys’ learning environment. Everything from beanbags to lockers has been considered, and the class continues to provide feedback on each
The nearby Papamoa Top 10 Holiday Park has also declared itself eager to be involved. Consequently, the boys will visit the beachside camping ground and participate in any number of life-skill activities from taking apart a lawnmower, to assisting with sand-dune planting projects.
The sand-dune project is a good example of the community-minded bent to the class. The boys visit the local library once a week and participate in a book club where they read to senior citizens. The boys also take on unique responsibilities within the confines of the school, such as raising the school and New Zealand flags each morning and setting up the hall for assemblies.
With help from their sponsors, the boys’ class goes on camp once a term, in comparison to other classes, which go once a year. It is also compulsory for the boys to take on two ‘contributions’ to school life in summer and two in winter, including such things as choir, book club, basketball, or ripper rugby.
The word ‘compulsory’ begins to feel at home when talking about the class. One certainly gets a sense that respect and discipline reign supreme here. Upon entering their classroom, the boys rise to their feet, and on cue, one class member greets the visitor and welcomes them to their class.
“It is very structured, very traditional in many senses. The boys respond to firm boundaries,” says Jepsen.
Allen believes boys prefer to be “publicly praised and privately admonished”. He says they do well in class with breaks for physical exercise, are rewarded with activities outside the classroom, are taught “no means no”, and need to be pushed beyond what they think they can do.
The structure and strictness certainly don’t appear to be deterring the boys. Jepsen says the boys’ class last year had an attendance rate of
99 per cent for the whole year, the highest in the school.
“We’d have kids turning up with coughs and runny noses trying to deny they had a cold so they didn’t miss out!” laughs Jepsen.
It all sounds fabulous for the boys in the class, but three major questions emerge. The first question is one of fairness, possibly hinting at some niggling, subconscious feminist protectionism lurking deep within: what about the other kids – the girls and the other boys – in the school? Are they missing out because the boys’ class is getting all the attention?
It would be fair to say that Jepsen is passionate about education, not just boys’ education. He is eager to find a way to get the best out of any student. “If there was a need for a girls’ class, we would set one up too,” he says.
Jepsen says the boys’ class is not suitable for every boy, and he uses his own sons as an example. “One would be a perfect candidate for the class, the other would possibly regress.”
The second question is: how is the model sustainable, both within the school and for the boys when they leave the class and venture into the ‘real world’?
Jepsen concedes this is a valid point and says he wishes Allen – who is no longer teaching the class and is writing a book on educating boys as he teeters on the brink of retirement (again) – were 20 years younger to aid the development of the boys’ class model, which he helped establish. Jepsen is supportive of Grant Cooper, Allen’s replacement as the new teacher of the boys’ class, but is also grateful to have Allen there as a mentor for Cooper. The boys’ class initiative is only in its second year and therefore needs constant nurturing, evaluation, and refinement.
Jepsen also says they are conscious of ingraining in the boys a sense of how to maximise their learning opportunities when they inevitably merge with the mainstream. ‘Creating lifelong learners’ is a mantra often repeated in education circles and it seems very applicable here.
The third, and possibly most significant, question is: with all the sport, community activities, camps and contributions, do the boys actually learn anything?
The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Jepsen says every single student in the class improved in terms of academic performance last year, which echoes my hairdresser’s comments about her son. Jepsen is quick to point out that despite all the value-added aspects, the school’s academic goals remain at the heart of what they do. He declares literacy and numeracy as “non-negotiable”.
It is fascinating that the slightly unorthodox teaching and learning philosophies underpinning the boys’ class are churning out such great academic results. It seems that by diverting the attention from a solely academic programme to a more varied approach, the academic success is forthcoming. The ‘whole learner’ approach Jepsen enthuses about is certainly working in this instance.
Te Akau ki Papamoa School is not alone in its attempt to tackle head on the underachievement of boys. Palmerston North’s Monrad Intermediate hired amputee and former truckie John “JT” Taylor as a teacher aide to mentor the boys in need of a role model. Further down the coast, Paraparaumu’s Kenakena School aims to raise around $10,000 each year to put all year 6 boys through a 10-week mentoring programme which uses team-building sporting exercises, anger resolution programmes, life skills, and goal setting. The boys also visit male-rich environments such as army training camps and rugby games. John McElwee, a teacher at Kenakena responsible for the programme, believes it is working and that there is a great need for such programmes in other New Zealand schools.
“We are seeing marked improvements in the boys’ achievements and sense of self. Work is improving. We are making a positive impact in their lives and giving them invaluable tools in handling situations. We are communicating with their parents in a therapeutic partnership,” says McElwee.
Experts agree the influence a respected male role model can have on a boy is a very important aspect of their development. Boys’ education expert, Joseph Driessen, recommends schools should be mindful that many boys don’t have male role models and will respond positively to school visits from men who inspire them to learn and work hard.
Dilworth School in Auckland is a school well-known for catering to boys lacking a significant male presence in their lives. Principal
Donald MacLean estimates some 80 per cent of Dilworth students have no dad or functioning father figure. As such, mentoring programmes, whereby the senior students take younger students under their wings, are an important part of school life.
New research shows that there might be more to the argument that boys do better under the tutelage and guidance of a male teacher they respect. A recent UK study, carried out among 1200 children in 29 British schools by the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, shows that boys lower their sights if they think their work is going to be marked by a woman because they believe their results will be worse. Shockingly, the research confirms that their suspicions are correct – female teachers did, on average, award lower marks to boys than unidentified external examiners. Male teachers, by contrast, awarded them higher marks than external examiners.
The study suggests what many experts and teachers suspect to be true – that boys tend to relate better to male teachers.
Although boys’ classes, mentoring programmes, and other such schemes that are cropping up around New Zealand are certainly laudable, it has been suggested that local initiatives can’t be the answer to addressing the national problem of boys’ underachievement. While the curriculum lends itself to good teaching and individualised learning, it needs to be implemented properly if it is to have any real effect on our male students.