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In June, a report by the Education Committee concluded that white, working class pupils are being ‘left behind’ after decades of neglect in the education system from the early years through to higher education. It affirmed the importance of education being included in the Government’s upcoming ‘levelling up’ strategy, as education is widely regarded as a key catalyst for social mobility.

Giving evidence to the committee last October, Professor Matthew Goodwin pointed to the concept of ‘white privilege’ – the idea that white people are societally privileged over other ethnic groups – as alienating poor white pupils, a group which the committee concludes are far from privileged in education.

Though both boys and girls are affected, it is the former group which is doubly disadvantaged; 2018 statistics demonstrate that white boys in receipt of free school meals had an average GCSE attainment score of 28.5 compared to the national average of 46.5.

Clearly, there is a crisis regarding the educational outcomes of white, working-class boys that needs to be addressed. New policies would benefit from being included in the levelling up strategy to ensure opportunities are afforded to this group throughout the life cycle.

Indeed, members of the Education Committee note only a proper targeted approach can address this issue, as opposed to the ‘muddling through’ approach taken by the Department for Education which prevents progress.

This issue is especially pertinent due to the measures enacted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, there are serious concerns that inequalities in education attainment – which are likely to have been exacerbated by school closures – will impact white, working-class pupils the greatest.

Undoubtedly, efforts to increase girls’ attainment, particularly in subjects where their presence has been lacking – such as initiatives to encourage more girls to take STEM subjects and the removal of ‘gendered language’ in the curriculum – are admirable and have produced positive outcomes.

There was a 31% increase in the number of girls taking A-level STEM subjects from 2010 to 2019; the number of women accepted onto STEM undergraduate courses has increased by 50.1%. More generally, from 2006/07 to 2016/17, the percentage of women participating in higher education rose from just under 50% to 56%.

However, it is arguable that successive governments have failed to give the same level of attention to boys in education policy.

A significant and growing gender gap in attainment exists across the education system, from Key Stage 2 SATs to university level. Women’s attendance at university overtook men’s in the early 1990s; in 2016, women were 35% more likely than men to attend university. If current trends continue, a girl born in 2016 will be 75% more likely to attend university than a boy.

Therefore, there needs to be a shift in policy focus to address the inequalities faced by boys – in particular, white, working-class boys.

International education policy can be studied for possible solutions to this issue. The OECD states the problem of underachieving boys exists worldwide, including in Norway, which, like all Nordic countries, is regarded as a shining example of gender egalitarianism. 

In an OECD paper examining policies and practices enacted in other countries that could be implemented in Norway, various initiatives are discussed.

One example is the ‘Becoming a Man’ initiative enacted in Chicago, USA. Introduced in 2009, it tutors economically disadvantaged boys to enable better decision making and avoid causing disruption in the classroom. Research included in the paper concludes the programme had a positive effect on pupil attainment. 

Furthermore, the programme’s title reframes masculinity as a positive attribute associated with good behaviour and achievement. A similar initiative would therefore contribute to a more positive self-image for the white, working-class boys involved.

Elsewhere, a paper from Impetus states that, for white working-class boys, the link between education success and employment success is unclear and broken. 

Returning to Norway, the country has a tradition of utilising school visits in the community as a primary school level approach to careers guidance. This involves taking pupils to a variety of local organisations including museums, banks, and local businesses. A similar policy could be utilised in the UK to demonstrate success in employment to boys and link this to the importance of educational attainment. 

However, these pupils are likely to live in deprived areas where diverse job opportunities do not exist. This demonstrates why it is important that changes in policy form part of the Government’s levelling up strategy, as this specific issue cannot be considered in isolation from the wider socioeconomic context.

Whatever future developments in UK education policy may be, it is vital that this crisis is addressed to ensure that these ‘left behind’ boys are valued and supported.

Francesca is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.