Sometimes it's just a job for the boys
By Shane Green
The boys-only class at Appin Park Primary School, in Wangaratta, is a hit
with the pupils.
Photo: Jason South
When teacher Wendy Martin entered her classroom at Appin Park Primary School earlier this year, the thing that struck her was the noise. "Early on, it was just unbearable," she said.
Ms Martin had volunteered for a bold experiment at the Wangaratta school - teaching a boys-only composite class of years 4 and 5.
But it soon dawned on her that the noise level was, in fact, all part of the learning experience for the boys.
"When you stop and think - they are really talking about the activity they're doing . . . well, it's OK," she said. "I can deal with a bit of noise. It didn't particularly worry me. They just can't sit still, they can't be quiet for any length of time."
Appin Park is one of a handful of state primary schools experimenting with boys-only classes in a bid to tackle some entrenched problems in boys' education. State secondary schools have long experienced boys-only classes, often to deal with gender imbalances, and the split sex classes are also used in some co-ed private schools. But in state primaries, the concept is a radical one.
The move coincides with the sense of crisis surrounding the performance of boys compared with girls, showing up in lower literacy and numeracy levels, and lower retention rates.
The idea of the boys-only class grew from concern about a group of boys who were losing interest in school. They didn't want to attend school, and weren't happy being there.
Ms Martin said some of the boys were suffering low self-esteem. And there was the underlying pressure of being in a class with girls - at Appin Park, the girls are in the majority in years 4 and 5.
"(They felt) 'I've got to appear to be cool for the girls, or not be dumb in front of them'. They don't feel that as much in their own sex setting," Ms Martin said."
At the end of 2003, principal David Salau discussed the idea with parents. A boys-only class of 26 was formed, alongside the usual mixed gender classes.
The idea of the boys-only class grew from concern about a group of boys who were losing interest.
Apart from boys who were unhappy at school, about half a dozen boys who were doing well were thrown into the mix to encourage the others.
The approach to the curriculum had to be different. The focus was hands-on learning and shorter activities. In the first two-hour block, sessions run for no more than 15 to 20 minutes.
Ms Martin also has a physical education background. Twice a day, she takes her students out of the classroom for phys-ed and games sessions.
It is here that the boys' social skills really developed. "That's where the encouragement and support they show for each other has really blossomed," Ms Martin said.
The boys-only class doesn't operate in single-sex isolation. The school ensures there is mixing outside the classroom.
The response from the boys has been enthusiastic. Mr Salau surveyed the class and put this statement to them: "It is easier for me to work when there aren't girls to compete with."
"It came back very strongly from the boys that they really enjoyed it," Mr Salau said.
This has been a big breakthrough. Boys who last year didn't like school now want to attend.
The Appin Park experience has attracted plenty of interest from other schools. The Education Department doesn't know how many primary schools have adopted boys-only classes, but there are only a few.
The department says that it is a decision for schools, students and parents. "The department really encourages lots of consultation," said an official. "The schools' aim in that situation is to provide a good learning environment for both the boys and girls."
The Appin Park experience builds on positive results in high schools. Camberwell High School is surrounded by private schools, two-thirds of which are girls-only or co-ed. Camberwell has two boys-only classes between years 7 and 10 but no boy spends consecutive years in a boys-only class.
Principal Elida Brereton said the classes encouraged more activity, different novels, and greater use of computers.
At Appin Park, the school will soon decide about boys-only classes for next year. Regardless of what happens, this year's experiment has already yielded results.
"By and large, we find the kids happy and wanting to come to school," Mr Salau said.