The Trouble With Boys

Conor Ryan reflects on David Willetts’ latest initiative to persuade more white working class boys to study at university.

Universities minister David Willetts was quick off the blocks for 2013 with his ideas on how to encourage white working class boys to go to university.

Young women are now a third more likely than young men to go to university, and there is a three-fold gap in applications between the poorest and richest neighbourhoods. In an article and interview for The Independent, Mr Willetts said that the education system “seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning.

He told the paper that the Office for Fair Access  “look at a range of disadvantaged groups – social class and ethnicity, for instance – when it comes to access agreements, so I don’t see why they couldn’t look at white, working-class boys.”

The Minister has a point. Growing research in recent years suggests that white working class boys perform less well than many minority ethnic communities in their test and exam results.

Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally, in a 2006 LSE study, identified a stronger gender gap in secondary than primary schools. They argued that “the importance of coursework in the GCSE examination is likely to be a key explanation for the emergence of the gender gap at age 16.” They also identified differences in teaching and learning styles, and modes of assessment.

In 2007, Joseph Rowntree Foundation research, conducted by Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon, with some Sutton Trust input, found that nearly half of all students defined as low achievers were White British males. White British students on average – boys and girls – were more likely than other ethnic groups to persist in low achievement.

National College research by Denis Mongon and Christopher Chapman from Manchester University with the National Union of Teachers in 2008 suggested that some school leaders were better than others at narrowing this gap. They suggested a focus on clear strategies including relentless application of the highest standards in teaching and attention to data detail were key where the gap was lower.

They rightly pointed out that the social class gap is much wider than any gender gap, yet the data suggest that white working class boys are at an even greater disadvantage than white working class girls. This lower attainment can translate into lower ambitions, as reflected in applications to Sutton Trust summer schools – an important route for many low and middle income young people into leading universities.

Sutton Trust summer schools target the first child in families who might go to university. In 2012, there were 5,295 applicants from girls and 2,712 from boys, a ratio of 2:1. Even with a slightly higher acceptance rate among boys than girls, 62% of attendees were girls and just 38% boys.

Recent exam data bears out both the gender and socio-economic gaps. The 2012 Key Stage Test data suggests that 60% of White British boys eligible for free school meals reach level 2 in English and Maths, compared with 67% of White British FSM girls. This is larger than the three point gender gap among all other pupils. However, there is a six-point gender gap across all FSM pupils. The big difference is in English, where the gender gap among FSM pupils is 12 points.

On the main 5 GCSE indicator (including English and Maths), 2011  data (2012 data is due later this month). shows that 26% of White British FSM boys reached this standard compared with 32% of girls, a slightly smaller gender gap than exists for all other pupils, but one consistent with the gap at age eleven. On overall performance, only traveller boys perform worse now at GCSE. 33% of Black Caribbean boys, for example, now reach the 5 GCSE standard (though overall White British students perform ten points better than Black Caribbean students)

So what can we do? David Willetts is surely right to want universities to provide concerted help through summer schools over several years to lift aspirations. The Trust is planning to use this approach through programmes with Kent academies and working with University College London to support highly able pupils from Year 8 onwards over five years.

Of course, Michael Gove’s changes to the exam system and curriculum – more facts, more end-of-course testing – may reduce the overall gender gap, as girls are believed to perform better in coursework.

But, in addition to OFFA looking more closely at the data, a more concerted focus on white working class boys could also be productive. When the Labour government targeted Afro-Caribbean achievement in the late 1990s, after the Stephen Lawrence murder, it set clear goals and a strong focus that has particularly benefited FSM pupils.  The London Challenge will have been of particular benefit, with its strong focus on leadership, teaching and data.

Today, our sister charity, the Education Endowment Foundation is testing the most effective ways to lifting achievement for pupils in receipt of free school meals, and has the potential to make a real difference in narrowing attainment gaps. 70% of its target group is White British.

The experience of minority ethnic communities suggests cultural change is also important. Bangladeshi students used to perform relatively poorly in schools. Now they out-perform White British students overall, and 56% of Bangladeshi students eligible for free school meals – including 53% of FSM boys – reach the five GCSE benchmark. That change owes a lot to a community’s desire to learn, backed by parents and teachers working to meet that desire.

Harnessing a similar will to learn in white working class communities must be a part of the solution to the low attainment of too many of their boys – and girls.

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