In UK school exams – GSCEs and A-levels – girls outperform boys in nearly all subjects. The STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are the only subjects in which boys can often still score the same as girls in GCSEs.
And this trend continues well after school, with more girls taking A-levels and heading off to university than boys. This has been dubbed the “university gender enrolment gap”, and the divide has been growing year on year. The latest figures show there is a more than nine per cent difference between university enrolment of boys and girls.
The Higher Education Policy Institute has called this a “national scandal”, but the gap between boys and girls starts well before university applications or A-levels come into play.
This is seen in the fact that far more five-year-old boys than girls fail the requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage. This is a set of legal requirements for education provision for children up to the age of five. Boys also tend to have more special education needs than girls – with the latest figures for 2016 showing that 15 per cent of boys had special educational needs compared to eight per cent of girls.
Then there are the wider issues at play, such as the lack of male teachers in the classroom.
So given the situation, you might think this is probably one of the biggest problems educational researchers are working on. But unfortunately this is not the case.
When it comes to gender, much special attention is given to helping and encouraging girls to study STEM subjects – which of course makes sense. But far too little is being done to find out why boys are falling behind in all other subjects.
So with this in mind, I have made a list of six things I think can and should be done to alleviate the situation, based on my own research.
1. Children should start primary school later
There is no good reason for children to start formal education so young – most countries start formal education at ages six or seven. This includes countries who do very well in global education rankings, such as Finland and Estonia. The UK is unusually early, with the “early years foundation stage” formalising early learning even before the age of five. This makes little sense and is seen as a controversial move among educational professionals.
2. Reading and writing should be fun
Reading and writing should also be seen as “fun” in the early years, and not formalised in terms of learning aims till after six years old. This is important because we know that boys’ language development is different and slower than that of girls, and the early start makes many of them failures from a young age.
3. Boys need more direction in secondary school
Girls’ brains mature faster than boys’ in the early teenage years. Boys seem to be more playful for longer, and less capable of planning their own educational progress. Previous research has shown that boys lack the skills needed to set the right goals for their homework.
This means boys need stricter direction. This is something all children could benefit from, given that in the early teenage years children are really too young to make smart decisions about their occupational future.
4. Reduce caffeine intake for better sleep
We know that children, especially teens, do not sleep enough for a variety of reasons, and caffeine intake can be a big part of the problem. Caffeine consumption is often found to be higher in boys, mainly because boys tend to drink more of the very highly caffeinated energy drinks. These drinks are often solely marketed at boys and consumption can disrupt normal concentration and activity levels.
5. Limit screen time
Research has shown that early exposure to screen time can lead to later attentional problems. And given that nearly all of the so-called “pathological gamers” are teenage boys, clearly less time spent in front of a screen is a good thing.
Children also shouldn’t watch TV until they are at least two – as research has shown there are more potential negative effects than positive ones for this age group. Limited TV time for children over the age two would also be beneficial. Parents need to be role models in this area – so switching off your own screen when appropriate is a must.
6. Change parental attitudes
Most of these ideas do not require massive amounts of money. Instead, they require a different approach and attitude to education and to discipline.
No doubt, limiting the use of phones, computer games, or TV time can be extremely challenging for parents – even more so if the kids already have access to these things. But now is the time to wake up and act to ensure our boys can fulfil their potential.
If we do not act, the problem will only grow larger, and will be a disaster not only for boys, but for society as a whole, given that educational outcomes are linked to many other social and health issues.