24 January 2023

Time to break the conspiracy of silence around boys’ under-achievement in school

By Nick Fletcher MP

It is the UN International Day of Education today which has a theme: ‘to invest in people, prioritise education’. The UN and the international community are focusing on the terrible plight of girls and women in Afghanistan. This is vital work – we cannot have a just and equal world if some people are denied the basic human right to an education because of their sex.

There is, of course, no comparison between the horrific actions of the Taliban and the situation here in the UK – but the principle of equal access to education is just as important here as it is abroad. So the clear gender education gap between boys and girls – and the poor attainment of working class boys in particular – should concern us all.

As a new member of the Education Select Committee who also represents a ‘red wall’ seat in South Yorkshire, I am particularly concerned by what I see as a total lack of political attention to this area. It is hard to explain and certainly hard to get an answer from Westminster or Whitehall about why this problem is continually overlooked.

The statistics are startling. For example, 35,000 fewer 18-year-old UK boys started university in September last year than girls of the same age. Only 47% of boys attained a grade 5 or above in both English and maths GCSE compared to 53% of girls. Just 54% of boys reach the expected standard in all of reading, writing and mathematics in SATS compared to 63% of girls. 

It’s brilliant that girls are doing so well, but why is there this gap and what is being done systemically to bridge it?

And it’s not just exam results where boy are faring worse than girls. In 2019/20 3,900 boys were permanently excluded from schools compared to 1,200 girls. The way to get that figure down is, clearly, by addressing pupils’ behaviour, not by weakening the power of schools to exclude.

The lack of male teachers in schools is another problem that is accelerating, with 24% of state-funded schools (primary and secondary) now without a single male classroom teacher. Overall, only 35% of secondary school teachers are male and the figure is just 14% in primary schools.

Yet when I scour the national political and educational landscape for answers and actions, I see very little. 

For instance, there is no male-specific recruitment campaign for teachers. There is plenty of focus on promoting STEM careers to girls, which is commendable, but none on promoting teaching careers to boys. Why? 

The prevailing mantra for the past few years has been ensuring that public institutions reflect the communities they serve. That doesn’t appears to be the case, however,  when it comes to men working in education. Male teachers can have a positive impact in schools, especially for those boys who do not have male role models at home. In addition, it is vital they see that learning is not just something for girls. My colleague Ben Bradley MP held an important debate in the House of Commons in November last year on this, but sadly the outcome continues to be little real action.

On attainment, we need a national strategy to understand the causes of boys’ underperformance and then take the action needed. We need the Government and the education sector at a national level to put their shoulder to the wheel. There are great initiatives happening in some schools and I know from speaking to teachers and school leaders that they are concerned. We need to harness this, find out what works and then deliver it. 

The work of Ulster University’s Taking Boys Seriously research identifies boys as ‘relational learners’ and are ‘researching a set of holistic ‘relational’ educational principles aimed at igniting boys’ motivation, aspirations and attitudes towards education and learning’.

These lessons need to be taken up across the UK. There are other important initiatives and thinking, including Mark Roberts’ book The Boy Question: How To Teach Boys To Succeed In School.  We’ve also seen an increasing focus on mentoring for boys without a positive role model, such as the work of the brilliant Lads Need Dads and others. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Men and Boys took evidence from experts on what is it is like to be ‘a boy today‘ and there was a clear steer towards the importance of role models and better understanding boys’ learning styles and development. Points on this are also well made by Richard Reeves’ excellent book Of Boys and Men

The greater emphasis on technical education is really welcome, but boys still need the core skills of maths, English, discipline, positive role models and the attitude to take learning seriously. 

I want to hear more from educators about the work they are doing to help boys with their education. It will help us all to lessons from each other, take action and move the dial before even more boys fall behind their female peers. Then, perhaps, the Government and the national education establishment will start acting. Their deafening silence cannot continue. The same is also true of national equalities organisations.

It also proves once again why we need a Minister for Men, because on this issue and so many others, such as men’s health, no one in government is looking at these equality and disadvantage issues affecting men and boys. We need accountability and action across the board.

So on the International Day of Education, as well as challenging the often disgraceful treatment of women and girls around the world, we need to prioritise closing the gender education gap and tackling boys’ underachievement here in the UK. 

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Nick Fletcher is MP for Don Valley and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Issues Affecting Men and Boys.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.