Nick Fletcher: ‘Boys are underperforming at school — silence on this grave inequality must end’

The government has been improving the overall standards of education in this country. 88 per cent of our schools are good or outstanding and we have been rising in the international rankings on maths, reading and science.

But there remains an elephant in the room.

Our boys are still not doing as well at school as they should be. They are underperforming. As well as with their own results, they are also behind girls at every single stage of education.

The gender attainment gap is an expression of their underperformance because there is no biological or other intrinsic reason why boys should be behind girls. Yet they are behind in SATs, GCSEs, A Levels, T Levels, vocational exams, and university entry. I know going to university is rightly not the be all and end all, but how many people know that 34,000 fewer 18-year-old British boys go to university every year than girls of the same age?

Plus, over 400,000 young men are not in education, employment or training and just under 5,000 boys are excluded from school every year. This cannot go on.

None of this is new either. When I joined the House in 2019, I decided boys’ education was an area I wanted to champion. I was amazed to find so little, if any, political focus had been given to it. I am sure if the situation was the other way around, it would be.

It is of course not a competition or a battle of the sexes because we all want our girls to learn, to do well, to reach for the stars. We must as a Parliament and as a society want our boys to do the same though.

Through the work of the APPG for Issues Affecting Men and Boys that I chair, our fourth report this parliament focused on boys’ education. It led to the debate this morning.

Whilst so many in the education community including research bodies and think tanks, are silent on the issue, we found some headteachers who were not. There are pockets of brilliance from different parts of the country. In Dorset, London, Cheltenham, Birmingham, Sussex and Rochdale. They are different types of schools too. Yet they have found solutions. Ulster University have also produced a “Taking Boys Seriously” framework, which is also a good starting point.

The government, education research bodies, and the wider schools’ community should listen to them and take up their recipe for success.

There are four main themes. The whole school has got behind improving boys’ education. They have created a boy-friendly environment. One that pushes boys, where boys are and feel fairly treated, that celebrates their success and makes sure their families are on board too. Boys also start to see the purpose of learning.

They also provide mentors and role models (often older male students) and extra lessons on literacy and oracy, if needed. Lastly, and it is a wider issue for society too, they outwardly care about their boys as well as their girls. We also need more male teachers to show boys that learning is for them too.

None of this actually, and rightly, holds any girls back – they benefit too. A positive and aspirational education environment, including one with fewer disruptive boys who are struggling to learn, is a win-win for all.

Society caring is an important point to me. If boys do not think anyone cares about them, then a minority are not going to be motivated to learn, will end up in the criminal justice system, and come under the spell of malign influencers.

One statistic I saw last year showed that 41 per cent of sixth form boys and girls have been told in school lessons that boys are a problem. What a terrible thing that must be for boys to be told in their schools that they are a problem. Shocking.

It is not the boys’ fault they are not doing as well as they should. It is the impact the adult world has on them. We must be clear on this so our boys do not feel there is something inherently wrong with them. It is also our responsibility to fix it, not theirs.

I have urged the government to formally acknowledge the need to improve boys’ education as an area of inequality. Just as the Equality and Human Rights Commission has done.

I want them to task Ofsted with reporting on the gender attainment gap and include in their assessments what actions schools are taking. Ring-fenced research is also vital on tackling the causes and formally identifying the solutions. The successful headteachers are the ideal starting point. Lastly, the government should launch a “This Boy Can” campaign to encourage boys to take up careers in their professions including health and social care. There are campaigns for getting more girls into STEM careers but no equivalent for boys. Why?

The silence on our boys not doing as well as they should at school cannot continue. government, education research bodies, and the wider education community cannot continue to ignore it. Just as they have done for the past thirty years. It is not fair on our boys, their families and communities. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.