Over the summer we have seen the publication of two reports focusing on the gap between boys and girls in terms of reading and in the number of male applicants to university. We are also about to witness a further decline in the number of white working class boys entering university. Save the Children’s ‘Lost Boys’ report indicated that there is up to a 17% gap in attainment between boys and girls in areas with high levels of poverty. King’s College and LKMCo report that there is a significant under representation of white working class boys in higher education. The issue is cyclical – lower numbers of boys achieving expected reading levels leading to lower numbers of white working class boys applying to university perpetuating the number of boys heading for manual roles or worst still, unemployment. As a consequence, there is a demonstrable impact on the aspirations of the ‘working’ classes and the educational outcomes of their children.
Save the Children and LKMCo both identify ‘low attainment at school for much of the problem of low participation in higher education’. This problem has been known for decades, the Aim Higher initiative through the 2000’s did little to address the issue nor has the ‘widening participation’ agenda impacted on aspirations or achievements of white, working class boys. If the pool of male applicants to university is to increase it is self-evident that the issue needs to be addressed at early stages of a boy’s life.
Save the Children recommend improving early years provision – from birth and pre-school, investment in evidence-based support programmes that train professionals to raise aspirations, increase access and improve achievements preparing all boys to be school ready. It is my belief borne out by significant evidence that every parent wants the best for the child, whatever the challenges, needs or disadvantages that is their experience. However, some parents, and practitioners in early years settings might need support in achieving the best. The Achievement for All ‘Achieving Early’ programme has impacted on practice in 60 settings in poor areas of the country, resulting in parents, boys (and girls) improving their engagement with reading and learning ‘how to learn’. With parents commenting that they ‘now know what it is to be different’, it is clear that change can happen.
LMKCo recommend improving primary aged children experience of higher education – I have witnessed the impact of Primary Futures programme, which has done much to improve the aspirations of boys, impacting on their aspirations. There is also considerable evidence cited in Sutton Trust reports on the impact of teachers aspirations for their pupils. The ‘can do’ approach rather than ‘because of your background’ excuses. Many of the boys who have broken through the class barrier will have done so because of the aspirations of their teachers, and their ability to find the greatness that exists in every boy, dig it out and share it with the world.
If we are committed to improving the outcomes for boys it is clear from both reports and other research that investment in developing early years practice is needed. The increase in provision for 2 and 3 year olds is to be applauded, it is now time to increase training opportunities at a local setting level, building on the fantastic commitment of early years teachers to improving outcomes. It is only by bringing together parents and carers, teachers and leaders to improve their understanding of what can be done to improve aspirations, access and achievement in the early years that the next generation of boys will be ready to apply to university.
Professor Sonia Blandford – CEO Achievement for All, former Pro-Vice Chancellor Canterbury Christ Church University