The Excel Academy

Teaching Boys – what we’ve learned

by A Steele

For the past few years, we’ve known that the gap between boy and girl achievement has, in a number of subjects, been widening. This is no great surprise: the national gap has been doing the same. This is not because girls are becoming more intelligent or that boys are getting ‘more stupider’.

It can be easily tracked to the introduction of terminal assessment in all subjects. Yes, girls used to do better with coursework, but boys didn’t do badly. And what coursework provided was a back-up; at least some marks that they were entering the exam with. Moreover, coursework meant one (or more) fewer unit to revise for at the end of the two-year course.

Boys are not great at independent revision and the introduction of terminal assessments has significantly hampered their ability to do as well as they once might have done. The sheer volume that they now need to revise is overwhelming so it is no surprise that some boys simply bury their heads in the sand and pretend it’s not there.

All this is fairly obvious. What is not quite so obvious is how we even the playing field for boys. And, if we can’t even the field, how can we at least encourage them onto the pitch?

Last academic year we ran a trial group in English (a subject with a significant boy-girl gap). This was an all boy group; an all underachieving group and – in some cases – made up of challenging behaviour. It is worth noting however, that it was not a sink group. It wasn’t populated with unteachable children but with children who would work with the member of staff. The group started off with 12 mixed ability students in it, all 3-4 grades away from their target grades (which ranged from 3.5-7.5) in either Language or Literature. This group was carefully chosen. Although some had challenging behaviour, they had to be students who we knew would respond in this environment to that member of staff. Fortunately, we largely got the mix right. After mock one, one student was moved out (who had not been engaging) and two underachieving high ability students were added.

Their English teacher began by incorporating as many boy-friendly activities into lessons as possible. Differentiation was a priority, after all, they were entirely mixed ability and some were working at grade 2 whereas others were accessing grade 5. Additional supporting resources were created; alternative tasks planned.

By October half term most of these were scrapped.

The boys didn’t respond to competition; didn’t want to move around the classroom and although they enjoyed any form of sweetie treat, it didn’t make them learn their quotes any better. More interestingly though, differentiation had boiled down to one technique: support those that need support first and then move round to extend those who are fully accessing the task. It was purely based on the teacher moving round the classroom constantly giving verbal feedback. Through the use of WAGOLLs (What A Good One Looks Like), modelling and structured group writing with clear success criteria, the boys were essentially being ‘taught to the top’ and were responding.

Not only that, through pedantic setting and chasing of homework, they were also giving that in too.

The Outcomes

When the time came for summer results, although it was felt that all boys had definitely behaved and enjoyed the lessons more than previously, the proof was indeed in the pudding.


  • Grades ranged between 3.5-6.5
  • All but two students were either above, on or -1 below target


  • Grades ranged from 4.5-8.5
  • No student was more than -1 away from their target; 2 students were +2

The objective, to ensure that they made accelerated progress in that year, had been achieved. No student made less than 1.5 grades of progress. More importantly, by taking these boys out of their previous groups, it also allowed other students to achieve when previously they may have been distracted.

The Strategies

  • Homework was compulsory and sanctioned immediately on incompletion by ensuring it was due in before a lunchtime
  • Lots of shared writing
  • Everything had a WAGOLL with it
  • Essay/ every other week and returned the following lesson
  • Pedantic about the amount of work / expectation for each individual
  • Lessons were very routine – all boys knew what to expect
  • All taught to the top

This by no means leads us to think that we have cracked the boy-girl achievement issue; for that to be the case, we need to ensure that boys are achieving in line with girls from Year 7. However, it has made us rethink our approach. Activities that – according to previous research – boys ‘love’ did not necessarily lead to them learning. In fact, the stricter the routine and the higher the expectations of the teacher, the better the boys’ progress.

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