We must end the 30-year silence about boys’ underperformance

Boys have been at the wrong end of a gender attainment gap for three decades and it is time we confronted it, says Nick Fletcher

Boys have been at the wrong end of a gender attainment gap for three decades and it is time we confronted it, says Nick Fletcher

27 Nov 2023, 5:00

One of the many missions I gave myself when I was elected in 2019 was to shine a spotlight on issues affecting men and boys in our country. With colleagues, I set up an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) to do just that, with boys’ educational underachievement being one of its key focus areas.

The APPG acts somewhat like a select committee. Witnesses are called, research interrogated and a report made. This happened over the spring and summer, and our report was released on Sunday, International Men’s Day. 

We wanted to focus on boys’ education because there has been a gender attainment gap for at least 30 years. Today, it affects boys of every age and stage from early years to SATs, and from GCSEs to university entry. Just over half of boys (56 per cent) meet the expected standard of reading, writing and maths at 11, compared with 63 per cent girls. This September, 34,000 fewer 18 year-old boys went to university than girls of the same age.

The evidence is in plain sight. Yet, when we looked for national-level interest from the education community we found little. When we looked for action, proactivity and interest from thinks tanks, foundations and government we found silence. When the team looked for research they found some, but it was not founded on large-scale trials. Much lay gathering dust on the policy bookshelves. Society does not care enough about boys.

Undeterred, we reached out to those few educationalists who were active in the field. There were many conclusions. Boys start school behind girls with lower language skills, and many never catch up. Additional literacy support is not available or targeted for those who need it. Not being able to express themselves leads to disruption. Being behind means they cannot access the curriculum, leading to more disruption. Too many boys don’t have fathers at home. In effect, some boys are behind because of the way the adult world interacts with them.

We sent out over 18,000 emails asking schools if they had closed the gap and how. We made contact with four secondary schools who had done so in similar ways, despite not knowing each other. They have all done it by creating learning environments that allow boys to thrive, with some targeted literacy support for those who need it.

Society does not care enough about boys

Their main conclusions are that the gap is not inevitable and that closing it is achievable. Their effective actions are founded on four key pillars:

They all have an institutional will and a culture that is focused on addressing the gap and that every staff member buys into.

They have all created a boy-positive school environments which are inclusive, aspirational and relational and built relationships with parents to support them. Boys are not seen as a problem to be managed. Instead, they are given access to role models and mentors and encouraged, pushed and helped to understand where their learning leads to. They accept no excuses for poor performance, and discipline is applied fairly to all.

They also show they care about boys, as all society must – and the boys see it. They ignorenegative narratives and the indifference that too many boys face. Instead, they embrace boys.

The APPG also heard debate about the impact of a lack of male teachers. Research shows that 80 per cent of teachers believe this is a problem, not because male teachers are better at teaching boys than female teachers but because boys will see learning is for them too. This is helpful for all boys, but essential especially for those without male role models at home.

Since we started communicating with the schools community about these findings, interest has spiked. A webinar with the headteachers from the schools mentioned above was full within two days. As ever, needed change begins with pockets of best practice disseminating their excellence.

No one at a national educational level has explained to me why they ignore the gender attainment gap, but our work gives me hope that a 30-year scandal can finally start to be acknowledged and addressed. Our boys deserve nothing less.

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