The educational performance of boys and the gender education gap

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Walker, and I am pleased to see so many Members from all sides of the House here and I do hope everyone will have an opportunity to take part, should they so wish.

I am delighted to lead this debate, because the educational underachievement of boys is a One Nation issue, it is an equality and fairness issue and an issue that should be front and centre of this Country’s conversation on education and social mobility.

The issue of our gender education gap and its impact is one that I feel has not been adequately addressed by this House, by successive Governments of all colours and one that the education sector itself seems reluctant to take action on. And that is a shame.

This is not an issue just about working class boys or no income families, albeit this is a group, of course, that does need attention, it is an issue that affects boys across the board including a group that is so often missed out, those boys from the low to low middle income households.

As Members of this House, we all hold dear the desire to ensure every young person in our great Country has the opportunity to make the make the most of their life and their skills. We also all want a cohesive society, the opportunity for social mobility for all and a successful economy, even more so in a positive post-Brexit economy. We all may have different ideas on how we achieve this but our aims are surely all the same.

So the reason for this debate is to set out what the gaps are, its impact to date, the reasons and what action I believe needs to be taken. For it is this positive action to tackle this inequality, that has been lacking and which needs to be quickly addressed. We cannot afford to keep letting more generations of our boys down by not addressing this glaring gender education gap – talk, or more talk, and no action will no longer pass muster.

It is also important to set out the framework of the debate in that this is about closing the gap between the education performance of boys and girls but not at the cost of reducing girls’ performance - that is a Socialist creed that I will not countenance.  I want levels of attainment for all to be comparable and raised, not lowered. We need the performance of both to keep on improving but for the gap between both to close.


The statistical background

It has to be recognised that the performance of boys has continued to improve over time. The number of boys going to university each year is 46,000 higher than a decade ago and there has been a steady improvement in GCSE and A-Level results.

What has stayed the same though is that there is a clear gap between boys and girls and in some areas such as higher education, this gap is increasing.

At Key Stage 2 level, (in old money, 11 year olds) the pass rate gap is six percentage points and often when boys are entering primary school they are already behind.

For 5 GCSEs including English and Maths in England, the gap is now 9 percentage points. In my County of Lincolnshire the gap is 10 percentage points. The gap at 16 years of age in Wales is 7.5%, Scotland 7% and Northern Ireland is 7.3%. For EBaccalaureates the gap is just under 10%.

As we move further through the education system, at A-Level, the average grade for a boy is C and for a girl it is C+ albeit a higher percentage of boys achieve 3 A or A* stars than girls.

In terms of higher education, fewer boys go to university due to lower attainment in earlier school or college years. 60,000 less in 2015 and a gap of 460,000 over the last ten years. Results at university also show that boys will also achieve lower grades and are more likely to drop out as well. Two thirds of all courses now have more women than men on them.


The impact of underperformance

As we all know and see every day in our Constituencies, while facts are one thing, it is the actual impact on the lives of individuals and their families that matter. This gap also affects our community, our businesses and our ability to compete as a Nation. I see its impact when driving around certain areas in the daytime and see young men hanging around when they should be in work, on an Apprenticeship or at university or college.

Most male NEETs are unemployed. For these men with no, or low, skill levels, this has an impact on their mental health, employment and predilection to commit crime. These men constitute the largest group within our criminal justice system.

When it comes to Apprenticeships, there are now 30,000 more female apprentices, a trend and gap that has been in place for at least the past five years.

After university, a lower percentage of male graduates will be in full time work when they leave, a higher percentage will be unemployed and also far fewer enter the professions. Nowadays there are more women becoming doctors, vets, dentists, solicitors and teachers than men every year – a reflection in the numbers taking related degrees. Twice as many women are now training to be a GP than men.

Lastly, we can see this all played out when it comes to wages, because according to the Office for National Statistics on average men in full time or part time work under 29 years of age are paid less per hour on average than similarly aged women. This remarkable transition flies in the face of the shrill equal-pay brigade who whilst proclaiming the need for equality, seem to quietly gloss over this fact when shouting from the roof tops with regard to equal pay.  I want equal pay for those with equivalent experience and qualifications and skill levels regardless of their gender, and their age.


The causes of the gender education gap

But what is causing this gap, a gap that broadly was not there before the 1980s and one that has been increasing since then?

This has been an area of some contention which may partly explain why so little investigation has so far taken place, because it is difficult to agree or find solutions if there is no agreement of what is causing the problem.

In essence there are a number of themes:

The first theme is that boys develop more slowly in their teen years than girls so boys and girls are not at the same natural development level, even when they are the same age.  Many of us long ago accepted that boys and girls are different.

The second is around social attitudes and background.

There is some evidence that boys’ attitudes towards education is lower than girls and they receive less support at home.

The role of fathers, and role models, is seen as vital to instilling into their sons the importance of education - perhaps longer working hours and one parent families where the father is not the primary carer are an issue.

The economy has changed so the value and job opportunities in masculine type work such as in heavy industry has changed or are not available as much as they once were.

Another theme is whether the education system is ‘boy-friendly’?

I believe the education system, schools and the sector as a whole is not focussed enough on supporting boys. This could be because schools lack understanding about boys and what makes them tick. The need for practical education, a level of freedom to think and act for themselves, clear goal setting, career and subject choice support - all within a clear disciplinary framework. And, an environment that nurtures and celebrates, not denigrates masculinity.

This is exacerbated by the lack of male teachers and role models in schools and if boys only see women in schools, in whatever roles, this reinforces their view that education is just for girls.

I, and others have noticed that the majority of pictures in the national papers recently, and each year it seems, were just of girls celebrating their exam success, not boys and girls – sending a subliminal message to boys that education and success is a girl issue – and not for them.

Perhaps the education sector shies away from any focus on boys because it is not pc - politically correct. Certainly there is deafening silence from the education trade unions and others. There would be no silence if the genders were reversed, of that I am sure.

Also the move from all or nothing exams to continual assessment at GCSEs has been seen as favouring a female way of learning, albeit with the recent changes swinging the pendulum slightly back towards a level playing field, it will be interesting to see whether this makes any difference to the gender education gap over the next few years.

Lastly, is there something else at play around the 16-18 age range regarding the welfare system especially for low or no income families, particularly the effect on young men who may be reluctant to take up an Apprenticeship because their families lose child benefit and it affects their working families tax credit. Some families do not want their sons and daughters to take up Apprenticeships.

This is an issue a well-respected and successful training provider in Lincolnshire called Lagat has found and they have made me aware of various examples of opportunities being denied young people, of both genders, because their families do not wish to be disadvantaged financially.  My colleagues in Government need to take heed and act positively to ensure this penalisation is removed quickly!

What strikes me most out of everything to do with this issue are two things.

Firstly, there is not a wholesale body of research, nor agreement on the causes, and the education sector is not focussed on this issue at all it seems. This is despite the valuable work by pressure groups, charities and think tanks from organisations such as the Higher Education Policy Institute and particularly the HEPI Report 84 authored by Nick Hillman and Nicholas Robinson with a foreword by Mary Curnock Cook, which I recommend to anyone who is interested in this issue. Other organisations with good research on this matter also include Save the Children, the National Literacy Commission, the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission and many others.

The second issue is that there does not seem to be agreement on what causes the gender education gap and of course this then makes it far harder to decide on what to do to positively address the problem.


The solutions

So I have set out so far, the statistics, the impacts and the broad debate on the causes but what are the solutions?

What we do know is that the limited amount, if any, of the solutions that have been implemented, are not working because the gap is not closing.

The first theme is to encourage and instil in the minds of parents and their sons that a good education is to their benefit and to re-instil a sense of aspiration, pride and understanding.

As Steve Biddulph’s books on parenting show, parents need to step up to the plate too in ensuring that boys are inspired and given opportunities to excel and aspire to do as well as their fellow female pupils at all ages.

By using practical examples, case studies, mentors perhaps, destination data, inspirational people from the local community, the National Citizen’s Service and other methods like this will surely have a positive effect as quickly as possible.

We have to provide clear reasons for boys to go to school and college and to concentrate and work hard whilst they are there. We need to communicate to parents and ensure they and the interaction they receive supports them every step of the way. The fact that no, or low, income girls still do better in educational attainment means that parental attitudes is not the only issue at play in this arena.

The education sector at a national and local level has to and can do more. Certainly we know there are schemes that form part of University Access Agreements to persuade more boys to go to university, but it is no criticism of the universities as they need more boys to achieve the grades to be able to go – and stay and not drop-out.

I believe, and I know many others such as Mary Curnock Cook, the Chief Executive of UCAS feels similarly, that we need more male teachers in schools at every level. Less than one in six primary school teachers are male and less than two in five at secondary level and this ratio is not improving on an equality level. This cannot go on and I am confident it is one of the main causes of boys being behind their female classmates.

We also need schools to rethink everything they do to ensure that everything they do is boy-friendly, not just girl-friendly.

The third theme is to be positive about masculinity in schools.

Boys need outlets for their creativity, energy and natural instincts. They need to know it is OK to be masculine and that masculinity is the equal to femininity.

It is a positive thing to like cars, engines, building sites, getting your hands dirty and playing sport. It is also a positive thing to like dancing, painting, sculpture, acting and writing plays – but we must not shy away at any level from celebrating what are traditional male or masculine roles – it is what we as males were born to do.

It may also surprise some ladies that some males can multi-task, some of us can cook and wash and sew and manipulate a Dyson without instruction and make a damn good job of it, but we also like to compete at scrabble, cards, jenga, football, rugby, cricket, hockey and whatever else we have the opportunity to engage in. And there is nothing wrong with that.

I fear the over feminisation of our education system has, and is, turning boys off of education – we need to nurture men and play to their strengths. Boys want to be young men, and young men want to be grown men – this is something that should be seen as a positive.

Some say grammar schools could be the answer and they may be for some, but we need all schools to be successful.

Bringing back secondary moderns for those who do not go to grammar schools and to ensure they attain the same results would cost a fortune and may not be in the short or long run attainable, so any moves on this policy need to be well thought out – no one, whatever their gender or background deserves to be left behind. 

If I am anything it is someone who believes in striving for a utopian completely level playing field in life’s chances, but I am a realist and I know that such a dream can never be, but I will do my best to ensure that our young people realise that, as my Maternal Grandma said to me and my younger brothers on more than one occasion – “no-one can ever take your education away from you.”

She wanted us to work hard at school and go on to college or university, and it only through the second and perhaps third chances I have been granted – mainly through her and my grandfather’s and parent’s sacrifices that I was able to achieve what I have achieved. It is why I am honoured and privileged to stand here, in this place, in front of you all today as one of the 650 Members of Parliament who have been elected to represent their fellow countrywomen and men – of all ages and educational attainment.

Long Term Apprentices have a role.

Additionally, I believe we also should be having three, five or seven year Apprenticeships that are equivalent to degrees but which are vocational for those who are non-academically minded. These of course should be available to girls as well as boys. We need to think differently. It works in countries like Germany, so why not here?

University is not for everyone and certainly with an increase in participation rates from circa 5% in the early 80’s to 30% in the early 90’s to 47% now, it should not mean it is automatically the primary option for young people. The Labour con of the late 1990s’ to keep youth unemployment figures low is not a good reason to increase University attendance and participation, whilst, I believe, wanting to win in a global economic race with a well-experienced and well-educated and motivated workforce across the myriad of economic sectors is.

And I find it odd that while we are all promoting more women to be engineers and scientists, there is no such reciprocal schemes for boys. Given the lack of young men now entering the professions, where are the schemes for young men enticing them to apply themselves and to enter such professions where they are now underrepresented; such as teaching, medicine, law, psychology and a whole raft of other subjects and specialisms?


We need focus and leadership

My final theme is about focus and political leadership.

There has been precious little attention and focus from the Department for Education, or anyone else for that matter in Government and Whitehall, in terms of recognition, policy and action on this issue.

Given this pattern has emerged and then become embedded for three decades, it is an issue for Governments of all shades including the last Labour Government to hold their heads in shame and their hands up in acknowledgement that they missed a trick and seek redemption.

In my view I am almost certain that if the genders were reversed this current situation would not be the case. Indeed for over 20 years there have been copious amounts of taxpayers’ money successfully spent on encouraging female applications for STEM subjects and a plethora of degree subjects, college courses and in more recent years, Apprenticeships. This is all to be welcomed but where has the focus and investment been for boys?

I also looked at what focus there was from the Government Equalities Department, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and the educational trade unions. Little if anything was the result of such fruitless searches.

This subject is not going to go away.  We cannot wait any longer for more generations of boys to fall behind girls educationally. This is why I believe the Government needs to set up an Implementation Taskforce as it has done on so many other important policy areas. This is exactly such a policy area.

The Government has rightly given much focus, policy and leadership on matters such as the lack of women on Boards and the gender pay gap. There is an un-arguable case that the Government should give the same level of focus, policy and leadership on the gender education gap as it has on those worthy issues that have received much media and BBC coverage in recent politically correct years.

The Department for Education and Ofsted need to step up to the plate and ensure schools, whether run through LEAs, or as academies and free schools, are boy-friendly.

The gender education gap is a very serious matter affecting boys, their families, communities, businesses and our Country as a whole. It is a One Nation Issue, a fairness issue, an equality issue and an issue that has been ignored for far too long. Our boys’ underperformance at school deserves national attention and action. They, their teachers, parents, we as their Members of Parliament, and our Nation should expect nothing less.