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Boy trouble: why dads are key to closing the gender education gap

Latest UK data about children's wellbeing confirm that our sons are doing worse than our daughters on two key measures of educational attainment.

Group of schoolboys in uniform singing together

The data show that in 2023, boys were much less likely to achieve a good level of development at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage [note 1]: only three-fifths (60.6%) of boys did so, compared to almost three-quarters (74.2%) of girls. Boys at the end of their school journey were also less likely than girls (77.6% vs 87.1%) to aspire to go onto further education [note 2].

 

Mountains of other data show a clear and persistent gender divide in children’s educational attainment. Girls outperform boys at every stage, including GCSE, A level and university (both attendance, and grade achieved) [note 3]. In the 18-24 age group, men are also more likely to be NEET (not in education, employment, or training) [note 4].


How is the UK responding to this issue?

It's true, of course, that boys still go on to become men who earn more, on average, than women [note 5] – although it’s also the case that men work longer hours than women [note 6] and are more likely to work for pay in the first place [note 7].

 

Perhaps this apparent lack of damage to men’s economic prospects explains why boys’ underachievement in the education system remains a problem in search of a solution? Maybe there’s also an ‘attainment gap battle’, with the one that exists between children (both boys and girls) in better-off and worse-off families (which is marked, and has widened in recent years [note 8]) - feeling more pressing? Or could it be, as University of West London Professor of Applied Psychology Ben Hine suggests, we just don’t care about boys?

Schoolchildren sat on a bench

 

In a recent Parliamentary debate [note 9], Doncaster MP Nick Fletcher (Conservative) made an impassioned plea for stronger efforts to address the problem, calling for:

  • Greater political leadership on this issue

  • Public acknowledgement that the gender attainment gap exists, and that boys’ relative underperformance is a problem the whole educational community must solve

  • A headteachers’ summit, to share best practice

  • A national ‘This boy can’ campaign, similar to ‘STEM is for girls’ campaigns

  • Ofsted taking account of gender attainment gaps in its school assessments

 

All sensible ideas - let’s hope Ministers from the Department for Education were listening. This is not the first time this issue has been aired in Parliament, though: in its 2021 report The forgotten: how white working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, the House of Commons Education Committee made several recommendations, including stronger parental engagement by Family Hubs and schools. And lots of useful resources already exist, for education leaders to draw on [note 10].


How can fathers help address the issue?

Fatherhood research is clear that boys (and girls) with positively involved fathers do better at all points in the education journey, and an evaluation of our FRED (Fathers Reading Every Day) programme in primary schools and early years settings found that the FRED children outperformed local and national averages, on all four Early Years Foundation Stage measures. The gender gap also closed – and on two measures was reversed.

 

Father reading with his son

FRED is available as a commissioned training option for schools and early years settings operating as individual agencies or within clusters, at any time. Educators across the country could be running FRED and evaluating its impact on the gender attainment gap – and we would happily support them to do so. We’re about to start a four-year FRED programme in early years settings across the London Borough of Lambeth, and while boys’ attainment is not our sole focus, it’s definitely in the mix.


Lessons from Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, Taking Boys Seriously has developed a ‘gender–conscious relational approach’, aimed at establishing an educational culture that engages, motivates, and removes barriers for boys and young men in their learning. Building on this, Boys Impact Hubs are now forming in several English localities, drawing on the project’s ten key principles. We look forward to hearing more as this work develops, and hopefully finding ways to collaborate.

Library bookshelves

 

The UK is not alone in experiencing the problem of boys’ underachievement [note 11], but it currently lacks a national strategy for addressing it. That needs to change, and father-inclusive practice by early years and schools should absolutely be part of the solution.

 

Better engagement with fathers by schools and early years settings, and an explicit focus on this in Ofsted assessments, is one of the ten policy ideas in our Manifesto for Supporting Paternal Caregiving


 

Notes

[1] Data for this and the following footnote comes from Office for National Statistics Children’s wellbeing measures March 2024. Data for this measure relate to September 2022 to July 2023

[2] See above. Data for this measure relate to January 2021 to May 2023

[3] For a summary, see Cambridge University Press & Assessment’s November 2023 report, Sex gaps in education in England

[4] Office for National Statistics Young people not in education, employment or training: 15.3% of men aged 18-24, and 13% of women aged 18-24, were NEET in October to December 2023 (seasonally adjusted figures)

[5] According to latest official data, the gender pay gap for full-time employees was 7.7% in April 2023.

[6] In 2022, average working hours for men were 35.3, and for women 27.9. Office for National Statistics. Average hours worked and economic growth, UK: 1998-2022

[7] In April to June 2023, 92.6% of men living with dependent children and 73.7% of men not living with dependent children, were in employment, compared to 77.2% of women living with dependent children and 68.9% of women not living with dependent children. Office for National Statistics. Employment rates for men and women living with and without dependent children in the UK: Table Q

[8] For more on this, see the Sutton Trust’s latest report

[9] A transcript of the debate, held on 5 March, is here. A House of Commons information pack prepared for the debate, and containing key data, Parliamentary Questions, and links to media articles is here

[10] These include a report exploring success factors for ‘high achieving’ white working class boys, and a Boys’ and Young Men’s Education Toolkit produced by the UK Men and Boys Coalition

[11] Education and skills are one of five areas of focus for the American Institute for Boys and Men, launched last year


 

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