An immovable object, impossible to shift

We’ve had a gap between how well girls perform in writing and how well boys do going back over measured and reported time, at every level, back when 'Levels' existed and since then, too.

The published data, available online to anyone who wants to look, hides some of this. What's published in the headline does not show any gender split or singularly writing attainment. You have to dig deep for the gender comparison in writing progress. In 2019 the data showed girls making positive progress over the key stage and boys quite the reverse – negative progress! (This does not mean they went backwards – it means compared to pupils with similar results at the end of key stage 1 nationally.)

Our pupils come from Infant Schools, and attainment in Infant Schools is always higher than in Key Stage 1 sections of through Primary Schools. Making progress from there is harder, perhaps, if the children have been ‘hot-housed’ and reached a plateau early. But if this is what’s going on for boys, why is the same not true for girls? Why do girls make positive progress and boys make negative (comparatively)?

In 2016 and 2017 the picture in writing progress scores was the same – girls were responsible for making our overall progress score ‘average’ – they made greater than average progress, while the boys as a whole made negative, below average, progress (when compared with similar prior attainers).

One peculiarity of the issue is that it is isolated to writing – the progress scores are very similar for boys and girls in both reading and maths, showing that boys are both capable of making progress and are being taught so as to make progress.

I am currently trying to define my emotional response to the latest analysis of internal tracking data. I’m not sure if the feeling is bafflement, amusement, concern, confusion, anger, frustration, acceptance of the inevitable or what – after a year and more of focusing on the progress in writing of our boys the gap has, in fact, got wider.

One thought was that the assessment process may be faulty – but that would impact on both genders equally and merely depress the attainment scores overall.

Another is that the boys were weaker on entry – they were. However, if we are truly a ‘Good’ school, and having known about the gap, shouldn’t we have had some success in narrowing the gap by now? (we haven’t). And that would only address attainment, not progress.

A third idea is that it is about reading – boys just aren’t as interested in reading, the argument goes. If that were true how is it that boys match girls in our reading scores? – in 2019 both boys and girls made strongly positive progress placing the school in the top quintile, and on attainment boys exceeded the national average (for boys) by more than the girls exceeded the (girls) national average. We teach reading well and the children attain and achieve well in reading.

Maybe we are inherently sexist when it comes to teaching writing - perhaps there exists a stereotype and teachers are simply responding to that.

We have tried raising the issue’s profile (the Hawthorne Effect), and the observer effect, and training on ‘greater depth’ features, and ‘immersion’, and better modelling’, and using the children’s own poor examples (unnamed) to improve as a model, and one to one tuition, and writing conferences, and daily handwriting, and rewriting the spelling progression, and having a trained moderator on the staff, and devoting a term of staff development, and consideration of how we use and give pupil feedback, and looking for writing specific training, and searching for tutors for writing, and …

Despite all we have tried so far the gender gap at the expected standard in writing remains around 20%. Attainment appears to be lower than a year ago for the same cohorts – tracking last year’s Year 5 into this year’s Year 6 we see 12% fewer now ‘on track’ for the expected standard in writing than we had a year ago, with the gender gap the same as a year ago.

Do we have to accept a genetic gender difference and give up battling against science?

Or do we keep searching for the Cillit Bang! Writing Improver – ‘one intervention programme and it’s gone’?

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