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What can you do about boys underachieving?

What can educators do about boys underachieving?

5 min read
  • The science of learning

Over the last decade, the gender gap in education has widened. In 2017, girls were 12.5% more likely to participate in higher education than boys. However, research suggests that there are no major differences in cognition between men and women: this doesn’t explain the gap. So, why are boys underachieving in England?

Why do boys underachieve ?

The OECD states that boys are 8% more likely than girls to say that school is a “waste of time”. This could possibly be because they do not feel adequately supported in the classroom. Research shows that boys in primary school believe that teachers view them as academically inferior to girls. This can lead to decreased motivation and confidence which has negative effects on grades and participation in the classroom. When over 200 children between the ages of 4 and 10 were tested, it was found that the belief in their own academic inferiority could lead to poor performance in assessments amongst boys.

The Longitudinal Study of Young People in England suggests that white boys from deprived backgrounds are more likely to have anti-school attitudes when compared to other minority groups. They also spend less time involved in academic activities outside of the classroom. On average, they spend 2.54 evenings a week doing homework, which is less than other groups (3.29 for Indian-British children and 3.13 for African-British children).

The split between school culture and family culture may be too difficult for some boys to balance, which can contribute to their underachievement in school. There are many ways to explain the weak links between school and home, and amongst them is how parents treat their children. Not setting high standards and having low expectations, especially for their sons, can send negative messages to young children which can then be conveyed in the school setting.

How bad is the problem?

According to the UCAS End of Cycle Report in 2015, only 9% of white boys from deprived backgrounds make it to university in the UK. Although coming from a deprived background (in this case, measured by eligibility for free school meals) can be considered a partial reason for this, there is still a huge difference between how boys and girls within this group prosper. A girl from a FSM background is 52% more likely to go to university than a male counterpart.

We can also look at Progress 8, a tool used to measure the progress made by a student between the start and end of secondary school. Girls have a higher score than boys across every ethnicity, between 11 and 16 years old. The average Progress 8 score for girls is 0.22, whilst the average score for boys is -0.25. This means that, throughout secondary school, girls have shown to make more progress in their academics than their male peers.

Consequences of underachieving in school

Even though the issue of boys underachieving in school has prevailed for over a decade, there doesn’t seem to be any significant changes. The Higher Education Policy Institute 2016 stated that, if current trends continue, a boy born that year (2016) will be 75% less likely to attend university than a girl by the time he is 18. As the years pass, we can see how this may almost certainly be the case. The gap between men and women going into higher education has widened significantly over the last decade: based on UCAS applications in 2018, almost 100,000 more women applied to university than men.

Underachieving in school has many long-lasting consequences, with the most serious consequences being for boys who leave school at 16. Those boys who stay in education until 18 and over are often already achieving well and can catch up with girls. Lack of job opportunities due to poor grades can contribute to the cycle of underachievement for future generations. It is therefore important to tackle the issue from a young age so that boys are succeeding in school long before they have to sit important exams such as GCSE’s and A-Levels.

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What can teachers do about boys underachieving?

We have gone through the research and compiled a few strategies that might make a meaningful difference:

Focus on language

It is easy to subconsciously use stereotypical language such as “boys don’t like reading” and “be a man”. However, in many situations, this can be detrimental. Boys who do like reading can feel discouraged and those who are upset may bottle up their emotions. This can have long-lasting negative effects and is often a step on the path to academic failure. Next time you’re teaching, if you realise your language is biased, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just take note of it and make the necessary changes. Small steps in the right direction are a great way to make positive change.

Expect the same from boys

Research suggests that most teachers associate academic achievements with girls. This can lead them to expect less from boys. If you’re teaching a class of boys and girls, ask them questions of the same difficulty. Encourage both groups to try out harder tasks. Consciously choose boys and girls equally to come up to the front of the class to explain a concept. Although statistics show that boys do underachieve, it does little for their needs as students to have lower expectations from them. Expect the same level of behaviour and academic performance from all of your students. This can make it easier to distinguish the struggling students and recognise the successful ones.

See their potential

Boys are often seen in terms of what they cannot and do not do. This can make them feel helpless and less inclined to do better. Using praise effectively can have wondrous effects on boy’s performance in the classroom. It can help them feel important, and praising their individual progress often enhances their motivation to learn. Students of any gender, race, and socio-economic background are full of potential – it just takes the right teacher to guide them through it. Encourage your students to learn by making them feel good when they’re sitting in your classroom. This can create a newfound excitement around school and learning, and be a stepping stone to success.

Final thoughts

Boys underachieving in school is not a new phenomenon. It has been a pressing issue for many years and statistics continue to demonstrate that boys are consistently falling behind girls in school and higher education. Consequences of boys underachieving are not just present during school – they can lead to issues that negatively impact a young boy’s life and future career. It is up to all of us to narrow the gender gap in educational achievement.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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