Thirty years ago boys did better at school than girls. Now, it’s the boys who have fallen behind both in the North of England and elsewhere in the UK. Last year in Newcastle almost half of white young men failed to achieve 5 or more ‘good’ GCSEs passes (including English and maths) compared to 40% of young women. The number of BAME youngsters from both genders gaining five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C (58%) is higher than those who are non-BAME. Only four out ten men go to university. In 1976 it was seven in ten!
More disturbing is that male truancy rates in the region are well above the national average. And the region’s capital city, Newcastle, has the highest rate of permanent absences in the North. The inspection body, Ofsted, notes that it is the white working class in our core cities, urban towns and coastal communities who are the cause for concern amongst the Educational establishment. If so, this has profound implications for their employment and life-chances. Is this a moral panic, as suggested by some feminist writers, or a notable example of moral realism?
Although socio-cultural handicaps inbuilt into the child’s home background is a plausible explanation for working-class under-attainment, it doesn’t tell us why girls are exceeding boys in the exam stakes. Educationalists are divided as to the reason why white working class boys are doing less well at every stage in the school system, whist girls are doing better than ever before. One, there’s some evidence that teachers are not as strict with boys. They are more likely to extend deadlines for written work, to have lower expectations of boys, and tend to be tolerant of low level anti-social behaviour in the classroom. Young men are more disruptive than young women. Four out of five permanent exclusions are boys!
Two, there appears to be a growing reactive ‘lad’, anti-school sub-culture amongst some working class boys. This was first noted by the sociologist, Paul Willis, in his book, ‘Learning to Labour’, in the eighties. By 1998 this was re-discovered by former Labour Tyneside MP, Steve Byers, the schools minister, who said: ”We must challenge the laddish, anti-learning culture which has been allowed to develop and should not simply be accepted with a shrug of the shoulders that boys will be boys.” A decade later, Professor Becky Francis, a Labour Party advisor, reaffirmed this perspective that boys achieved more peer group ‘macho’ status by resisting being taught, rejecting the values of hard work, conformity and achievement, through bad behaviour like messing about in class.
Increasingly primary school teaching has become ‘feminised’ with a lack of positive male role models. Even at secondary level three-quarters of all teachers are female. Learning for many kids at an early age has become a ‘girly’ activity. This contributes to a negative attitude to the value of schooling and acquiring qualifications. For the sociologist Ken Brown, a senior Labour councillor in Warwickshire, one chief explanation is the sharp demise of traditional male jobs. The region’s coal mines have shut down. Heavy industries like shipbuilding on Tyne and Wear which took on thousands of unqualified young men in the seventies have almost vanished. Given these huge economic changes in the labour market some young men have given up, become NEETs while lacking motivation or aspiration.
Working class white boys are undergoing an ‘identity crisis’ with confusion of role, low self-worth and self-esteem. Youth unemployment remains high both in the North and South Wales. Unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are fast vanishing with globalisation and the advent of automation.
There’s mounting evidence that girls work harder at school or college and are better motivated. Coursework at GCSE and BTEC seems to suit them rather than end of year exams. Boys put less energy into written work and spend less time completing homework assignments. By 15 boys are less mature than girls by two years. Put simply, girls are more inclined to view exams in a more responsible way.
Research from the policy analyst, Michael Barber, reveals that ”more boys than girls think they are able, and few boys than girls think they are below average.” Yet national GCSE results published in January 2017, shows this perspective to be quite the opposite the truth. Barber’s work is fast coming to the conclusion that the gender attainment gap is due to the differing ways in which the sexes behave and spend leisure time. Boys are preoccupied with computers. Too many of them don’t like reading books after the age 8. Girls are more likely to read fiction and magazines, stand around in groups talking: even if it is gossiping about the local heartthrob in the sixth form.
The educationalist, Peter Douglas, argues that school is a linguistic experience and most subjects and jobs require high levels of comprehension and literary skills. Unlike girls, boys view it as ‘sissy’. That’s why young women are being admitted by higher education institutions in their droves. And many more find openings in the knowledge and service based industries by the age of 21.
In the last ten years or so the educational performance of both genders has increased steadily. Girls outperform boys in most subjects except computer science. However, Christine Skelton notes in her book, ‘Brains before Beauty’, that to portray all girls as achievers and all boys as under-performers is misleading. For Skelton, it’s the improvement in educational performance of girls from middle class backgrounds that accounts for the sharp rise in girls’ performance overall. Middle-class boys from the leafy suburbs and shires continue to do well. Young men and women from the lower socio-economic groups continue to under-achieve compared to their affluent peers.
On the basis of a more robust analysis of the data, the fact remains that white working-class males are the worst performers at school of all genders and ethnicities in the North, Midlands and depressed coastal towns of Britain. Thousands of ‘lost boys’ have left school unofficially from 14+ on. The vast majority don’t show up in further education colleges or apprenticeships from 16 onwards. 70% of FE students are working-class women. It’s almost impossible to track these ‘missing males’ down with the privatisation and abandonment of the national Careers Service.
According to independent think tank, Policy North, 21% of 19 to 24-year olds on Tyne and Wear are NEETs. Unless government, the devolved authorities and business acts, Britain’s ‘left-behind’ regions are in danger of creating a disengaged male white ‘under-class’ in post-industrial society.