The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Will Millard

Boyz II Men: how worried should we be about boys' educational outcomes?

How much does gender impact pupil performance? According to Will Millard, other characteristics exert a far more powerful influence over academic outcomes. 

The media is full of stories about boys’ relative underperformance at school in comparison to girls.

This seems warranted. Boys don’t do as well as girls on average in the early years, in SATs or GCSEs.

Girls also do better overall at A-level.

To what extent should we worry about this gender divide?

I believe that focusing on gender over and above young people’s other characteristics is misleading, and that this could draw attention and resources away from the individual pupils most in need of support.

Subject differences

Girls’ performance overall and on average is better throughout school from the early years to GCSEs, but this masks within – and between – subject differences.

In the early years the gender divide is largest in reading and writing, and carries on to GCSEs. However, an early gap in numeracy virtually disappears through KS2 to GCSEs, and boys perform better at the top-end in maths.

This is reflected in international trends, with OECD analysis suggesting that an early male advantage in numeracy age 10 grows throughout their teens, into adulthood.

A sizeable literacy gender gap in favour of female students at age 15 becomes negligible by age 27.

Therefore, while girls’ academic performance tends to be stronger than boys’ on average, we mustn’t ignore how this plays out in individual subject areas. This also has implications for pupils’ aspirations, a point I return to shortly.

Other characteristics

When it comes to pupil performance, other characteristics – and the interaction between these – exert a far more powerful influence over outcomes than gender.

Taking headline results data across primary and secondary schools, we see that while there is an on-average gender gap, having a special educational need or growing up in poverty is likely to have a far larger impact on a young person’s educational outcomes than being male or female.

Indeed, research shows young people growing up in poverty are disproportionately likely to have a form of SEND. Pupils from particular ethnic groups are also more likely to underperform relative to their peers.

How these and other factors interact also matters. LKMco’s recent research Boys on Track outlines some of the challenges facing black Carribean and white FSM-eligible boys in London, and how these two groups are especially vulnerable to underachieving compared to pupils from other backgrounds.

Focusing too much on gender could draw resources away from the individual pupils most in need of support 

Societal stereotypes about class and race as well as gender, alongside the difficulties that come from growing up in poverty, mean these pupils face hurdles that simply aren’t there for many of their peers.

Although boys from these ethnic groups are especially likely to underachieve, outcomes for girls are not currently much better.

Seeing this as purely a ‘boy problem’ misses the point.

Decision-making, aspirations and career access

There are differences linked to gender when it comes to how young people make decisions about their subject choices.

Despite broadly similar outcomes in STEM subjects throughout school, boys are more likely than girls to take these subjects at GCSE and A-level.

LKMco’s latest research on careers education shows that boys are more likely than girls to access quality careers education (including work experience), although access is also affected by SEND-status, poverty, geography, and other factors.

Growing up in poverty is likely to have a far larger impact on educational outcomes than being male or female

Gendered stereotypes about ‘appropriate’ career pathways form very early, and can narrow and cap aspiration for both male and female pupils. 

Looking beyond schooling, young Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are increasingly likely to attend university, but earn less on average than their male counterparts and peers from other ethnic groups.

Candidates who are all likely to find getting a job dispraportionately harder include:

  • women
  • those from ethnic minorities
  • those from poorer backgrounds.

Ways forward

Gender can exert an influence over young people’s experiences and educational outcomes, but it is an over-simplification to ignore other, important factors.

Contributors to Boys on Track stressed the need for practitioners working with young people to emphasise the importance of mental health and wellbeing. The report also calls for practitioners to understand their personal biases and prejudices when it comes to gender, but also when it comes to race, disability, class, and so on.

A number of other factors could also help underachieving groups:

  • educational settings working with parents and families, involving them in their children’s education
  • families having and securing access to high quality early years provision
  • the recruitment and retention of a more diverse teaching workforce
  • settings and employers enhancing access to work experience opportunities, careers guidance, and support into employment
  • settings encouraging peer support among young people.

While boys from poorer backgrounds may stand to disproportionately benefit from these steps, all pupils would gain.

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