A Co Antrim teacher is releasing a new book exploring why boys struggle academically in Northern Ireland.
For Mark Roberts, who moved in to the English department at Carrick Grammar School in January, and became the first director of research appointed to a school in Northern Ireland, getting the best from boys has become a specialist subject, leading to the release of The Boy Question.
The book is a follow-up to his co-authored 2019 educational bible Boys Don’t Try? and provides a focus on what makes boys tick in the classroom.
With three young boys of his own to look after at home, it is no surprise that is his area of expertise.
“This was born from the questions I kept being asked after the first book came out,” Mark explained.
“I thought I would try to answer them.”
While Mark’s first publication was aimed at dispelling some of the myths around boys failing to achieve where girls succeeded, the second - published on Tuesday - explores what is holding boys back academically and how best to help them succeed.
Now based in Greenisland, after teaching spells in Dover and Manchester, Mark admitted the last few months had been challenging in more ways than one.
Taking up his role at Carrick Grammar in January, his family moved to Northern Ireland, with his wife originally from Coleraine. And as well as putting the finishing touches to The Boy Question, he has also been working on an A-level revision guide, also published this week, and jumped straight into teaching remotely with students he had never met.
“I suppose I do like a challenge,” he said.
“The book writing ended up with quite a few long evenings, but I’m delighted to get to this point where it’s ready to go out there.”
Mark’s first book was very quickly a best seller in academic circles and led to invites around the country on the subject of teaching boys.
Now nine key questions which kept cropping up are addressed, from examining how to motivate boys to work hard, to how to get boys reading more.
The publication could not have arrived at a better time.
Last month a team of education experts published a report into educational underachievement, with a the Fair Start document detailing 47 actions for the Department of Education to begin addressing the situation.
“Overall it’s great that underachievement is being highlighted and tackled in this way,” said Mark.
“The issue over boys in particular is one that’s been around in education for some time.
“A perceived lack of ambition to succeed, poor attitudes towards learning, lower literacy levels and a reluctance to read for pleasure have all been debated before. What I’ve tried to do is provide teachers with a way of trying to address those issues.
“When you have people like Boris Johnson calling David Cameron a ‘girlie swot’ for getting a first class degree when he got a 2:1 - that shows the kind of thing you’re up against!”
Mark admitted that there is now a lot of pressure on him as a teacher and a parent to put his methods into practice.
“Boys are often seen as not wanting to work too hard as it isn’t ‘cool’, particularly amongst working class boys,” he said.
“They try to get by on minimum effort but this book is looking at ways of tapping into that potential and bringing it out, getting away from the peer pressure boys tend to bow to more than girls and focusing on the best ways to engage them in the classroom.”
Mark has also taken a look at the effects of lockdown and home schooling, something he was thrown into himself at a time when he was moving to Northern Ireland from England.
“Research has shown that lockdown has widened the gender attainment gap in education even further,” he said.
“Teachers have always been aware of the ‘boy problem’ and after months of home-schooling, more parents are now aware of boys’ struggles to ask for help. They want to know how best to assist their learning.
“That’s something I’m thinking about next,” said Mark. “How to speak directly to parents, how to get them thinking about how best to motivate boys to succeed.
“There are strategies we can adopt, ideas we can bring into the curriculum to make education enjoyable.
“By putting faith in me as director of research, finding new ways to engage pupils in the curriculum, Carrick Grammar School is leading the way when it comes to new thinking in education.
“But first I’ll take a little time off, go and watch the boys in their sports, then try to get parents switched on to the role they can play in helping boys succeed.”
For now, The Boy Question offers an abundance of practical advice for the busy classroom teacher, and is released this week to give teachers a summer of preparation for tacking issues head-on once the new term begins in September.