As a member of the Education Select Committee and a former primary school teacher, I’ve heard evidence and seen first-hand that boys are underachieving through school, compared to their female peers.
In July, both Kings College London and Save the Children published reports highlighting the gender gap in attainment in our education system.
King’s College found that white working-class boys are less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university, and that some white working-class boys feel forced to conceal their identity in order to navigate the world of higher education. I was pleased to hear Theresa May describing this issue as a “burning injustice” and a “difficult truth” – these words must now be followed with action.
Save the Children’s report The Lost Boys highlighted the potentially devastating and lifelong consequences for boys in England who start school significantly trailing girls in basic early language skills. It found boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to have fallen behind by the time they start school, and boys in poverty are trailing the most, with a staggering 40 per cent falling behind. Being behind on the first day of school is often an indicator that these boys will stay behind, potentially for life. Many struggle to catch up, and in the longer term, struggling in the early years damages their life chances, employment prospects and health outcomes.
A large part of achievement in adulthood is to do with a child’s early chances in life. With the recent focus on grammar schools, let us not forget that educationally success or failure can be determined much earlier than age 11.
If a child falls behind by age five, their attainment in school is likely to be poor and a measure of this is the expected standards of language and communication skills. I was saddened to hear in my own constituency of Hazel Grove 27 per cent of boys, according to Save the Children, failed to meet these standards. This means they started school struggling to speak in full sentences, fully engage with their peers or follow even simple instructions from their teachers.
Both reports emphasised the critical role that parents, the home environment and quality nursery education play in encouraging boys to be ready to learn at school. Boys are less likely to participate in story-telling and nursery rhymes, which develop their language skills as well as self-confidence, motivation and concentration – but the quality of teaching can make a huge difference to overcoming these barriers.
Good quality early years education can close the early gender gap, giving boys and girls equal opportunity to fulfil their potential. Early years teachers ensure that boys and girls participate equally in early reading and play-related activities, which develop their skills and keep them interested in books, reading, talking and learning.
New Save the Children research shows that a child who attends a nursery with an early years teacher at age three does almost 10 per cent better in early development. Yet only two in five private, voluntary and independent nurseries currently employ an early years teacher.
Eighty-six per cent of early years providers are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted but we cannot be complacent. The government needs to support the development of a well-qualified nursery workforce, with a qualified early years teacher in every nursery, starting in areas with the largest numbers of poor children first. But early years teachers recruitment is stalling dramatically.
What’s needed is a co-ordinated effort by the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities, nursery providers, school leaders and parents to raise the attainment of this group by boosting quality early education, in order to make sure that all children, but particularly working-class boys who we are failing by the current system, have the critical language skills to act as a foundation for their schooling and for life-long success.
William Wragg is the Conservative MP for Hazel Grove and member of the Education Select Committee. He previously worked as a primary school and special educational needs teacher