Time to Take Boys Seriously

Systemic: a judgement on the inequity of educational attainment and participation for tens of thousands of boys every year?

The gender gap has been evident for decades; it persists at all stages of education; and it has been the subject of academic research, education policy development by governments, and of international reports by civil society.

Not much has changed though, notwithstanding advances for under-privileged groups generally, as judged by current enrolments in higher education. Unfortunately, there are groups which, by dint of gender, environment of birth and educational habitat, remain stubbornly resistent to the individual and civic benefits of education: young males are a prescient example.

Evidence presented here suggests that our education systems are not meeting the basic participation requirements for very many boys. The case herewith is not, by the way, one of problematic academic selection; it is one of critical reflection on engagement by those of us in education; and of a time to take boys seriously.

The deep change that is required cannot be achieved by the education system in isolation, let alone the school system. A sector-wide approach is required on: prior attainment, socioeconomic background, educational outreach, adolescent male cultures, mentoring, local communities, curriculum, pedagogies in the classroom, teacher education and school management.

There has been much in the recent press concerning the higher proportion of boys getting the highest A* grade in A levels.  Not many articles look beneath this high-grade veneer. Of the 720,000 A-level cohort, there are fewer boys taking A levels than girls: the proportions are 45% and 55%, respectively. More girls achieve A grades and they out-perform boys in most other grades as well. A similar performance pattern exists for the Irish Leaving Certificate. But these successes distract from that which lies beneath.

Little wonder then, that male under-representation persists into higher education. The UK University Central Admissions System (UCAS) End-of-Cycle report for 2016, notes that the admissions process is fair, giving similar outcomes to people with similar grades. That said, in progression to higher education, 27.2% of men – compared to 36.8% women – gained admission for 2016/17; the largest gap on record. Statistics from the Irish Higher Education Authority for 2015/16 show that for full-time entrants, a small gap of 2% for undergraduates widens to 10% for postgraduates. For Northern Ireland, male participation has risen slowly over a decade to 34.6% of male school leavers; but the gender gap has widened, as the comparable entry rate for female school leavers is currently 50.2%. The UCAS report estimates the numbers of those from the lowest quintile of participation who are left out annually at 40,000.

UCAS – End-of-Cyle Report 2016

Nothing in this blog, by the way, detracts from the success in advancing female participation. This good news story of today has yet to – but surely will in time – translate to educational outcomes. What is proposed is not an equation of zero-sum; it is closer to (the cliché) of all ships (people) rising on a tide (of opportunity) that should benefit all. We have seen similar reform benefit all already in student support enhancements on reasonable adjustments to academic delivery and assessment as part of reforms for special educational needs and disability.

Do not be misled, though, into thinking this gender gap appears at the point of entry to higher education. It is observed early in the education system. In the compulsory stages of education fewer boys achieve GCSE grades A*-C. Boys (becoming men) are also less likely to stay on in post-compulsory education. These characteristics combine perniciously to deliver reduced likelihood to enrol for A levels, and a consequent reduced likelihood to progress to further and higher study. A systemic problem indeed.

A full and tracked school-leaver analysis on progression to further education and alternative pathways to higher education would be really helpful here in identifying the real gender gap in eductaion.

So, the beginning of a response to Taking Boys Seriously lies in tackling levels of prior attainment. In the foreword to the UCAS End-of-Cycle Report 2016, the outgoing Chief Executive, Mary Curnock Cook, stated that differences in higher education entry such as these are now: “… so wide, and the waste of potential they imply so great, that a new approach and determination is needed.”

A government study from 2008 reinforces the prior attainment focus.  The (then) Department for Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS) in Gender Gaps in Higher Education Participation found that when participation was controlled for prior attainment, there was no evidence of a gender gap in the likelihood to progress to higher education. The clear conclusion is that efforts to reduce the gender gap should predominantly be aimed at increasing the relative prior attainment of boys.

DIUS – Gender Gaps 2008

Major studies on the levels of prior attainment of boys in Northern Ireland demonstrate that the issues are complex and not limited solely, as might be surmised, to socioeconomic background. The Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Reports by the Communities Relations Council observe that community differences transcend aspects of socioeconomic background, especially for girls. There is, nevertheless, a confluence of factors bearing down on attainment for young males of working-class background and from districts of unmet social need. This is resonant with observations for white working class males in the UK sector. But the gap for Northern Ireland, as noted by the Department for Employment and Learning in 2016, is stark for higher education participation in the lowest decile of deprivation: here, participation rates are staggeringly in range 0.5 to 1.7% of the wider population.

Communities Relations Council – NI  Peace Monitoring Report 2016

Department for Employment and Learning – Access to Success: Second Annual Statement

Herein lies the rub for civic and civil society: what creative space and supported alternatives do we allow for individual circumstance, potential, opportunity, merit and choice to progress?

It is for these reasons that Ulster University is embarking on a long-term, sector-wide, action-research initiative to implement Taking Boys Seriously. This follows an initial longitudinal study published by the University in 2012 under the same name, sponsored by the Department for Education Northern Ireland.  The report’s recommendations have important implications for teaching, supporting and working with boys; and offers pragmatic suggestions to help boys make better connections between school and their wider social, emotional and developmental needs. Recommendations include:

  • tackling barriers to learning early, including connection with curriculum
  • research into gender specific teaching, curricula and educational settings
  • teacher CPD in gender stereotypes
  • critical awareness in boys of masculinity
  • transition support for boys, especially at year 10
  • school relationships ethos and approach to learning
  • utilisation of youth-work methodologies for disengaged boys
  • shared space ethos at school
  • strong youth work, community and parent links
  • positive behaviour for restorative developments
  • school as a safe place.

Ulster University research – Taking Boys Seriously

Many of us are intuitively aware of the intrinsic civil society benefits of education for social mobility, cohesion and economic development. Those left behind by the system are locked out of these opportunities. OECD and UNICEF reports are replete with the evidence.

OECD – Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools

UNICEF – Why are Boys Underperforming in Education?

In conclusion, this all means that personal and social circumstances of gender, family background, community and place of domicile remain as significant obstacles to attainment for boys in our society; especially boys of less affluent families and those living in areas of significant unmet social need.

An education system that combines equity with quality can be best-in-class. Bringing into the classroom new learning styles and adapting the learning environment and relationships to facilitate meaningful participation will transform the development of young boys into educated men.

So, let’s start by Taking Boys Seriously.


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