White working-class boys: The vulnerable group in UK schools

Sunday 12th March 2017




William Wragg, a member of the Education Select Committee and Conservative MP for Hazel Grove

As a member of the Education Select Committee and a former primary school teacher, I have heard evidence and seen first-hand that boys are underachieving through school, compared to their female peers.

Last year, both Kings College London and Save the Children published separate reports highlighting the gender gap in attainment in our education system.

King’s College London 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 Prime Minister Theresa May describing that 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 those 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 educational focus on grammar schools, let us not forget that, educationally, success or failure can be determined much earlier than the age of 11. If a child falls behind by the age of 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 that 27 per cent of boys failed to meet those standards. That means they started school struggling to speak in full sentences, fully engage with their peers, and follow even simple instructions from their teachers.

Both reports emphasised the critical role that parents, the home environment and quality of nursery education play in encouraging boys to be ready to learn at school. There are a number of barriers for boys, as they are less likely to participate in story-telling and nursery rhymes, which develop their language skills as well as issues of self-confidence, motivation and concentration. However, the quality of teaching can make a huge difference to overcoming those barriers.

Good quality early years education can close the early education gender gap, giving both boys and girls equal opportunity to fulfil their potential. Early Years Teachers ensure that both 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.

Eighty-six per cent of early years providers are currently rated good or outstanding by Ofsted but we cannot afford to be complacent. Only two in five private, voluntary and independent nurseries currently employ an Early Years Teacher. The Government, therefore, needs to support the development of a well-qualified nursery workforce, with a qualified early years teacher in every nursery, not just in 40 per cent of nurseries – and starting, first of all, in areas which have the largest numbers of poor children.

Under this Government, great strides have been made in equalities in the adult world. There has been welcome progress on closing the gender pay gap, seeing more women in senior positions in business, and raising representation of black and ethnic minorities in both education and business. However, at the same time, we risk leaving some groups behind, and white boys from poorer backgrounds are one of these.

What is needed now 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 that 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 not just their schooling, but for life-long success.

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