Finding the lost boys

In an article in the Sunday Times, 06/01/13, Tony Little, headmaster of Eton College tells Sian Griffiths how to reverse the trend as Universities' minister David Willetts warns education is failing young men.

Last week David Willetts, the minister for universities, revealed that 54,000 fewer young men had applied to start a degree course last autumn than in 2011, a fall of 13%. The decline was four times the drop in applications from young women.

“I do worry about what looks like increasing underperformance by young men,” he said. “There are now more women who enter university each year than men who submit an application.”

This was “the culmination of a decades-old trend in education which seems to make it harder for boys to face down obstacles in the way of learning”.

Like other head teachers at single-sex schools, Little believes that boys and girls need to be taught differently. Eton’s head master said that neuroscience shows boys are hardwired differently from girls.

“We need a better understanding of what works for boys and what works for girls. Too much of the time we treat them the same,” he said.

At Eton, where about three-quarters of GCSEs are graded A* and most of the sixth-form land a place at either Oxford of Cambridge every year, teachers have perfected techniques for getting the best out of boys.

“Boys are competitive, can’t multitask, need to be physically active and are more emotional than girls,” said Little. They are also creatures of habit: “If you instil good habits [such as completing homework] early on, boys continue with them.”

First, schools should organise competitive tests, said Little. “One of the myths we get wrong is that competition makes children feel unworthy. What irks boys is not being outshone but not having the opportunity to shine in the first place.”

If Little is right, changes being introduced to the way in which some exams are marked should benefit boys, who have been outperformed by girls at GCSE for years. The marking of maths GCSE has not included coursework since 2009, when boys began to do better than girls again. Experts say girls are better at coursework.

Little also suggested that, because multitasking is not easy for boys, instructions ought to be confined to one subject at a time. “The teenage male brain switches off or explodes when it’s overloaded.”

Lessons should be interspersed with plenty of exercise. Boys may need to be active, even in class. Hopping from foot to foot or standing up at the desk should not be punished; movement may even help a boy concentrate on his study.

Perhaps most controversially, Little argued that boys who behave impulsively should not be disciplined.

“If you have boys behaving in a highly charged way, they are not being naughty . . . I have seen boys behaving in a normal adolescent way described by teachers as problematic. These are the boys who are switched off school and achieve little.”

“The minister is right in pointing out that we face a challenge with white working-class boys,” he said. “It’s a challenge to inspire them to aspire to go to university.”

Some institutions were already working with such youngsters, he said. The University of East London aims to enrol 200 white working-class students a year and at Leeds University a similar initiative is under way.

By Sian Griffiths, Sunday Times. Click here to read the article © Sunday Times