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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 July 2007, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Do primary schools let boys down?
BY Hannah Goff
BBC News education reporter

Boy writing
Boys tend to like to learn by doing
By the age of seven more than a quarter of boys need special help with their education, the latest figures show.

Is there something inherently wrong with a large chunk of one of the sexes - or are primary schools simply letting boys down?

It has long been known that male and female brains are different - that they mature at different rates and develop in different ways.

You only need to look at the way very young boys and girls play to see that often they like different things and approach things in different ways.

Experts say girls' brains are more wired up for communicating and reading emotions, while boys like moving, doing and solving practical problems.

Boys in particular need to rough and tumble play as part of their development
Dr Elizabeth Morris

Principal of the School of Emotional Literacy Dr Elizabeth Morris says: "Boys like doing things for a purpose and having things that are concrete and relevant to deal with.

"Girls will be happier with discussion, relationship building, team activities and reading."

She adds: "The teaching profession in primaries is dominated by women who, with the best will in the world, will tend to deliver a larger proportion of the curriculum in teaching styles that make most sense to them - and therefore favour the girls."

Girls tend to be auditory and visual learners whereas boys are more kinaesthetic learners.

This means that while girls like to listen and watch, boys like to learn by doing and taking part in discussions in small groups.

So teachers need to be aware of the ways in which their pupils find it most natural to learn, says head teacher at the Churchill School in Folkestone, Jennie Carter.

"If someone's picking at the carpet when the TV's on - they are not likely to be a visual learner."

Don't fidget

To ensure that all pupils are being given an equal chance to learn, teachers at the school ask pupils to rate how clearly they understand what has just been taught to them.

If the pupils who say they have not quite grasped things are the ones she knows to be visual learners - then she might show them a picture to help them grasp what's being taught, for example.

As a result of this and other measures, of the 43% of children who get extra help at the school, 93% reach the required level in national tests.

Good school behaviour in the early years is often about sitting still, not fidgeting and waiting your turn to answer the teacher's question.

"Given that boys in particular need to rough and tumble play as part of their development - and that this is happening less with parents now because they are not around so much - we may be seeing boys trying unconsciously to do what is right for their bodies by being physical," says Dr Morris.

"But they have it misunderstood and classified as an emotional behaviour disorder because it doesn't conform to school needs."


Some experts suggest that teachers are deliberately getting pupils labelled as having special needs with reading, for example, because it is an easy way of getting a difficult child out of the classroom for a while.

Mrs Carter says if there is a lack of support for members of staff this misuse of SEN labels is likely to happen.

She recalls one bright pupil with Asperger's syndrome (ASD).

"Some days he would not want to be with people so we would let him lie on the floor under the white board and let him get on with his work.

"He did really well and got into a grammar school but they couldn't cope when he got there."

Thankfully, the grammar school sent a teacher back to the primary school to draw up a provision map to deal with the different situations he was likely to encounter.

The fact that more and more children are being diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders like Asperger's, which tend to affect more boys than girls, also slants the special needs statistics.

Dr Sujin Rhee, child clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area, says the way such disorders manifest themselves varies widely but many children with Asperger's can end up having scuffles in the playground.

Teacher in class
The majority of primary school teachers are women

"Those with Asperger's (ASD) have trouble with distractibility, they are rigid in their thinking and have difficulties with social skills and building friendship, misread social cues and have verbal outbursts.

"It is likely to be difficult for them to identify and process their feelings and emotions and manage their stress or anxiety."

Many of these symptoms can be overcome with specialist help but obviously that can only be given once it is spotted.

She says there is a strong need for the regular teachers and administrators to raise awareness and understand the needs of ASD pupils.

But crucially she adds: "I don't believe we should force children to interact with their peers if they don't really want to.

"Some children want to play alone and it causes them angst to have to socialise as much as we may want them to or we see fit."

Maybe schools' obsession with conformity is the root of the problem - perhaps our teachers are unconsciously trying to make boys behave more like girls?

Dr Morris: "Boys are great - they are full of fun and life. I hate how we take that energy and try to contain it rather than finding channels and opportunities to work with them in ways that fit for them."

She says that boys often end up being stereotyped which just creates a self-fulfilling cycle, but she adds that once those working with children are able to see what is going on developmentally or neurologically they see the children quite differently.

"If we can then give them easy-to-use resources and encouragement to teach outside their comfort zone for a bit - it would help enormously."

Low attainers 'poor white boys'
22 Jun 07 |  Education
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14 Mar 07 |  Education

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