We’ve known for some time that something in the education system isn’t working for boys. In primary, secondary and now, as a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) confirms, in university education too, boys are lagging behind their female classmates. After centuries of men taking the lion’s share of university places, UCAS now estimates that women are 35% more likely to get a place on a degree course in the UK than a man. And if current trends continue unchecked, things will get significantly worse for boys born today.
There are caveats to the HEPI findings that lessen the impact. For a start, if degrees that traditionally favour women such as teaching and nursing were removed from the calculations the bias towards girls would be considerably less pronounced. Furthermore, girls may be choosing to study for a degree to mitigate against the significant disadvantage they will face in terms of salary and advancement when they start work. It is right that education plays its part to help girls overcome these obstacles. The fact also remains that if the tables were turned and we were talking about over 45,000 fewer girls getting degrees in the UK (and that’s just using data from 2011) there would be more questions asked.
The difference in attainment between boys and girls is certainly not a priority for the government. The white paper ‘Educational excellence everywhere’ focuses much more attention on addressing inequality in education related to poverty than gender. Of course this is a worthy aim; NCB’s own ‘Greater Expectations’ research has shown how growing up in a poor household can erode a child’s education, making them far less likely to achieve a good level of development at age 4, to achieve well at school age 11 or do well in their GCSEs at 16 compared to a child from the most well-off backgrounds. But making no mention of gender imbalances in education may come to be seen as short-sighted.
What is causing boys to falter is complicated to unpick. The HEPI research shows that ethnicity is linked to attainment in university, with young white men from poor backgrounds at the bottom of the pile. Only 10% of young white men from the most disadvantaged backgrounds enter into higher education, compared to 60% of young men with Chinese heritage.
Neurological differences also play their part. While the report concludes that while the difference between girls’ and boys’ brains may have been overstated in the past, it is a factor. During adolescence, boys’ brains tend to undergo a neurological shift to a more efficient way of wiring the brain later than girls.
And then there are societal influences. At the heart of these concerns is that boys are faring less well because they lack positive male role models around them as they grow up. We know that in the UK approximately 1 in 4 families are single-parent families, and of these, nearly a woman will head 90%.
This disparity is echoed within the school workforce where women teachers are predominant in schools. However, there is no conclusive evidence that increasing the number of male teachers would raise attainment amongst boys. One study in England found that women teachers are fairer in the way they treat different gender groups and less likely to be influenced by whether a pupils is a boy or a girl.
Whether these differences arise due to nature or nurture, the disparity in outcomes cannot be ignored. In an NCB study of boys’ attitudes to health, conducted in response to the fact that men are more likely to die prematurely of health conditions that should affect both sexes equally, we concluded that the solutions could only be brought about by multi-pronged interventions involving policy-makers, health professionals, parents, teachers, and, crucially, boys themselves. The solution to boy’s poor performance in education will require a similar breadth of action.
Here, we would do well to remind ourselves that the aim of education isn’t just improving crude output measures - like holding a degree certificate - but in building the capabilities of boys so they can thrive in an education system which may be at odds with some of their characteristics. A challenge for our current thinking on education is that boys deserve equality too.