Minding the Gaps | Mike Watson

Mike Watson on raising the educational attainment of boys at UK state schools


The House of Lords recently considered what has become a real and entrenched sociological issue in England’s schools: the fact that girls consistently out-perform boys in educational achievement. Boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to fall behind, and despite a dramatic improvement in overall results over the past decade or so, the gender gap has hardly changed for five-year-olds.


Research by Save the Children shows that since 2006, there has been a 20% improvement in overall attainment in state schools, and an 8% reduction in the poverty gap. Yet there has been a reduction of just 1% in the gender gap, in terms of educational attainment. In 2015, boys accounted for 51% of children who started primary school but 66% of those who were behind in their early language and communication. The pattern is similar at Key Stage 2 (age 11) and with GCSE results, and also found across all ethnic groupings.


There is no obvious reason for this disparity. But research from University of Bristol has shown how big an impact the gender gap in the Early Years Foundation Stage (up to age 5) has on boys’ primary school attainment. Two-thirds of the gap in reading at Key Stage 2 can be attributed to the fact that boys begin school with poorer language and attention skills than girls. Evidence meanwhile, from a wide range of other studies points clearly to high-quality early childhood education and care provision being the most powerful protection against the risk of falling behind.


This is especially the case with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ministers says they want to improve social mobility. I don’t doubt their good intentions in terms of apprenticeships but they are misguided about expanding grammar schools, for which there is no evidence to demonstrate these have a positive impact on such mobility. Instead, the government should relentlessly target resources at early years’ provision.


Since 2010, over 400 of the Sure Start centres across England established by the last Labour government have closed. In July 2015, the then childcare minister announced the launch of an open consultation on Children’s Centres for that autumn – something that never happened.


Ministers must grasp the need for investment in the best early education and childcare provision, particularly in the most deprived areas, led by graduates and supported by skilled staff at all levels. A well-qualified early years’ workforce is vital if young children are to have the support they need to thrive. There is also a need to increase the number of teachers and those with equivalent graduate qualifications. The difference in the quality of provision at nurseries between the most and least deprived areas is almost completely wiped out if a graduate is present.


We cannot wait for disadvantaged children – girls and boys alike – to get to school before they receive the support they need. By that time many will have already fallen behind, with negative consequences for their childhoods, life chances and success.


Much better to consider the positive benefits of improving boys’ language and communication skills early on in life – whether in terms of personal relations or how they might better interact with the world around them. As well of course, how it might help deal with the adult counter-point to this particular concern: the fact that despite the early attainment gap between boys and girls, it is the latter that continue to lose out once they enter the workplace.


Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

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