BAFA – Overview and Action Plan:  

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the Bristol Boys Achievement Project.  As part of my undergraduate degree, I studied Women’s History.  I have always been interested by equality in our world, and in particular, educational inequalities between the sexes.  As such, I chose this theme for my dissertation and carried out a case study on a select number of secondary schools in South Bristol.    One of the topics I explored was nature verses nurture?   Do gender identities exist because of differences between the sexes – or is it a result of society and the way we live, which has created such gender identities.   My studies showed that society makes a huge difference and whilst there may be some differences between the sexes, this is massively exacerbated by society.    Interestingly enough, one of the major findings of my study was that boys and girls in secondary schools do better when they are educated separately.  The rationale behind this was that the presence of the “other sex” reinforced the gender identity.  The research showed that girls and boys were more likely to take on roles not associated with their sex when they were educated separately.

As part of my masters I studied cultural anthropology.  I was fascinated by what I discovered through my studies and it became very clear to me that the environment in which we are “educated” – both at home and in school, play such a fundamental role in shaping who we are, what we believe and how we behave.

Over the past few years, I have been doing some research into the ways boys and girls learn in our nursery: Charlton, Imperial. My question was “Do boys and girls learn differently?”   This question was largely the result of my frustration as a teacher over the past 15 years.  I have often heard “boys learn like this… girls learn like that…” and references to boy-like and girl-like activities.  This has been in complete contrast to my undergraduate studies where there was no assumption whatsoever that boys and girls are different.

My studies focused on three areas:

  1. General observation of interactions between practitioners, families and children
  2. French lessons – Following on from my undergraduate study, I taught a series of French lessons, some of which the children were separated by gender.
  3. Home Learning exercise: A questionnaire and activity which was completed by 8 children aged 3+ with their parents


  1. The first part of the study was very subjective. I observed practice and interactions on an ad hoc basis and made notes of some of the findings.   The focus of my informal observations was the type of toys boys and girls play with and the type of language adults and indeed children use with one another.  From my observations, I noted that the gender identities were less apparent in the baby and toddler room and were far more apparent in the pre-school room.  This did not appear to be the result of any overt messages from the adults.  The SENCO, following a course on ….   drew to our attention at a staff meeting that the older rooms were sometimes segregating boys and girls (e.g. lining up for toilet time) and it was agreed that we would refrain from highlighting differences between boys and girls.  However, it would appear that the messages reinforcing gender identities between these early years were far more covert and harder to define; so deeply embedded in society that to counter them is far more difficult.  An example of this, which I have heard described as “The Hidden Curriculum”  is books.  Whilst progress has been made, the media in particular still portray the patriarchal structure in its definition of a family.  Peppa Pig is a prime example.

    Whilst this part of the study was interesting, I felt (and this was confirmed following my interview with Bristol University) that more “concrete” evidence would be required in order to give the research more credence.  I therefore would suggest as a future action point that a boy and a girl in each of our four rooms is observed over a period of time, with (by way of suggestion) a focus on all aspects that could possibly determine and influence the way they are – from their clothes, their toys, their interests to their interactions.

    The second part of my study, the French lessons were perhaps the most revealing. I started teaching French at Charlton nearly three years ago.  Almost from the outset, I separated the boys and girls for their learning.   I have therefore taught a number of cohorts during this time.  I feel this has been very important in this part of the research, and far more useful than just focusing on one cohort.  Different practitioners observed the different cohorts and it is clear to say that their observations of the “outcome” differ.   It also became apparent that other factors played a part in the performance of the children, for example, the size of the group, the environment and not least the individual personalities of the children.

    The evaluations and observations revealed the following:

    – Girls were motivated by the reward stamp.
    The girls were definitely more motivated by the stamp that was given at the end of each session.  The stamp really improved their engagement levels.  The boys showed far less interest in the stamp and were not at all motivated by it.

    – Boys were motivated by a competition
    The boys were motivated by team games and competition-like activities, and showed a keen interest to win.  The girls were less motivated by this.  This was the case for both the Bluebell and the Pre-school room.

    In the Bluebells room, boys tended to answer questions with non-verbal communications whilst girls answered with verbal communications.

    At the start of each session, I always ask the children how we begin.  The boys in the Bluebells room responded each time by a gesture of a hand wave, whilst the girls gave the verbal response by singing the first two words of our welcome song: “Bonjour bonjour”.   This difference was not apparent in the pre-school room.

    – Girls sit better than boys and are less distracted – or are they?

    Without doubt, the girls “sat better” than the boys, and this was the case for both the Bluebell and the Sunflower room.  The girls, as a whole, appeared more focused in the respect that they concentrated on the French lesson and were less distracted by other things in the environment.   It would be a fair observation on the part of the practitioner to say that the “girls did better”.  However, in terms of language knowledge, my evaluations of their French revealed that there was no clear difference between the boys and the girls.  There was a difference globally, with some individuals retaining and producing more French than others, but this difference cannot be attributed to their sex. Therefore, even though the boys appeared not to be listening and had a tendency to flop around on the floor, they were able to retain and produce as much French language as the girls.

    Engagement levels and interest were perhaps even more interesting.  This is probably due to the fact that for me, teaching and learning is all about love and fun – for I firmly believe that it is only when we are enabled (loved) and having a good time (fun) that we can ever fulfil our full potential.  Although the boys were undoubtedly quieter and better behaved when they were taught separately, they were not necessarily more engaged.  In the pre-school lesson especially, a few of the boys were actually quite withdrawn in their single-sex lessons. These boys were far more engaged when taught alongside the girls.  For the vast majority of the children, the presence of the other sex did not impact on their engagement levels.

    My initial question “Do boys and girls learn differently?” therefore generated more questions:

– What exactly do we mean as practitioners when we say “do better”? Do we mean “do better” in terms of outcome/results or are we referring to being able to sit still?

– Do children have to sit still to learn?

It was clear from my research that in terms of outcome (performance in the French language), separating the boys and girls for their learning made no impact.   Separating the boys and girls did appear to have a good impact on their behaviour.  However, the same cannot be said for their engagement levels and interest. This led me to question what we mean by “good behaviour”.  I am not sure that sitting still, quiet and disengaged can ever fit the description of “good”.  Whilst the girls remained focused, some of the boys certainly did better with the girls present.  Consequently, I would argue that in the early years, where the presence of gender identities are not so pronounced, separating boys and girls for their learning did not have a positive impact.  It could be argued in fact that it may have even had the adverse effect, not least by highlighting a difference between the sexes.

My studies confirmed my firm belief that people have not, do not and will never fit into boxes.  Whilst we need to generalise, in order to make progress, we cannot escape the fact that we are all individually unique with our own strengths and weaknesses. My educational philosophy that I adopted at the beginning of my teaching career remains as strong as it was back in 2004: “If a child doesn’t learn in the way we teach, then we must teach in the way the child learns”.  I strongly believe that in order for education to be successful, it has to be personalised, regardless of whether we are a boy or a girl.

Details of the Home Learning aspect of the study (section 3) can be found on the accompanying document.

The findings were very interesting and displayed that gender stereotypes were beginning to play a role in shaping the interests and play of the children in the study.

One major difference from the study was the difference in writing skills.  Whilst the girls were able to form letters and copy whole sentences, the boys were far less advanced.  This is an area that I feel could be explored further.

Action Plan:

I would suggest that to take the study forward, Amy Hunter, the new Lead EYT, may like to explore some of the following areas:

      • As stated above and highlighted in yellow:

Observe a boy and a girl in each of our four rooms over a period of time, with  a focus on all aspects that could possibly determine and influence the way they are – from their clothes, their toys, their interests to their interactions.

      • The Hidden Curriculum: How bad is it and what impact does it have? We have pages and pages of sign-up sheets from our lending library.   It would be very interesting to see which books are the most popular (i.e. which books do boys choose to take home, which books do girls choose to take home – and are there any trends). It would also be interesting to take a look inside the most popular books read by our children to see what “hidden messages” are coming through.
      • Writing skills: Why is there such a disparity between the written work of boys and girls in our pre-school?