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After the furore: Reviewing our own work on boys’ underachievement

  • 25 May 2016

Our recent report on the underachievement of boys in higher education, Boys to Men, has received many plaudits and some brickbats. That was always likely, given the sensitivity of the topic. (Still, it was an improvement on the last time HEPI raised the problem, when – as I have written elsewhere – it was treated like an embarrassing relative sitting in a corner spouting politically incorrect nonsense on Christmas Day.) As a think tank, our primary goal is to spark debate, so we are grateful to both those who bothered to say why they disagree and those who have bothered to express support. At the very least, it has helped encourage people to discuss the issue.

The pushback has mainly taken three forms. First, there is an argument that we should not focus so much on gender and shine the spotlight more on class. The Vice President (Higher Education) of the National Union of Students wrote: ‘Invisible throughout the [HEPI] report is the issue of class, undoubtedly the biggest determinant of young people’s ability to survive and thrive within education.’ This seems to be a misreading because the report does note that inequalities other than gender are critical. On page 12, for example, it says: ‘Policymaking is not a zero-sum game in which you have to choose between caring about female disadvantage or the socio-economic gap or male underachievement. All three matter.’ Much of the data in the report is cut in ways that show socio-economic differences, so they are certainly not ‘invisible’.

In fact, we go further. We explain that it is not possible to tackle the rates at which different groups reach higher education unless and until you recognise the linkages between different issues. The group least likely to make it to university are poor white men. Each one of those three characteristics (poor, white, male) matters. If you decide only to focus on their poverty or their ethnicity but to ignore their gender, you are unlikely to even up the gaps. Again, the report notes this: ‘The socio-economic gap in higher education participation cannot be understood without giving consideration to the particularly poor underperformance of young males from poor households.’

The second main criticism has been to claim we were wrong to say more male teachers would solve (or help to solve) the problem of male underachievement in schools. The NUS Vice President quoted above said: ‘women teachers are given as the reason that young men don’t do as well as young women in school, with no evidence whatsoever to underpin this.’ This is just wrong. The report discusses various specific research projects on whether having more male teachers would help boys (see pages 40 and 41 and the associated endnotes). The evidence is contradictory, so we specifically rejected the idea that the disproportionate number of female teachers helps explain male underachievement: ‘It is often said more male school teachers would help raise the achievement of boys by providing positive role models. Yet the evidence suggests this has limited, if any, potential in tackling the educational achievement gap between males and females.’ We simply sought to follow the evidence and, as a blogger wrote in response to our report, to attack us for blaming the high proportion of female teachers is to attack us for ‘pretty much the opposite’ of what we said.

A third criticism is that we were firing a cannon in a perpetual battle between the sexes. This is evident, for example, in a new entry on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network responding to our report entitled ‘Don’t turn student recruitment into a battle of the sexes’. The argument seems not to be based on a close reading of the actual report, which says at the start: ‘Nothing in the pages that follow should be interpreted as a lack of concern for the challenges facing women in higher education and elsewhere.’ We even pointed out that, in higher education itself, female staff face a glass ceiling while men often pass by in a glass elevator.

The purpose of this blog is not, however, to have the final word against those who opposed, queried or misunderstood our findings. It is rather to look ourselves at the points at which our argument is perhaps less strong in order to be self critical – as all think tanks and academic researchers should be. Two places stand out.

The report’s overarching argument is clear: that we are letting boys down and higher education institutions could do more to help them. However, as we also make clear in the report, once you control for the prior educational achievements of boys and girls, then boys are actually no less likely to make it to higher education. Indeed, among those who sat their GCSEs in 2008, boys were actually slightly more likely to reach university after accounting for their prior attainment levels.

This could be interpreted as meaning the underperformance of boys is a problem for schools and parents but not so much for universities. In their Leader column on our report, The Times said: ‘It [the HEPI report] supports targets for male HE recruitment and more “foundation” years for male students to ensure that they take full advantage of degree courses. Why it does not also implore parents to ration video-gaming more rigorously is baffling. The most obvious solutions are very often the best.’ There is some validity in that critique, but we focused our policy proposals on higher education institutions partly because we are a higher education think tank, rather than a schools one. The main reason, however, is that, even if it were easy for parents and schools to solve male underachievement (which it isn’t), leaving it to other parts of the education system would do nothing to help people who are already aged 16, 17, 18 or 19 who are already making their post-school choices.

Moreover, if you think of the UK education system as a whole, then each part arguably bears responsibility for tackling the really big problems. And, given that male students continue falling behind even after enrolling in higher education – they are more likely to drop out and less likely to secure a top degree than female students – then universities clearly also have a direct role in tackling male underperformance too.

The second, perhaps stronger, critique of our work is that, if you strip out teacher training and nursing from the data, then the gender gap is massively reduced. This is true, as we also say in the report. As these were not traditionally graduate-entry professions, a large part of the reason why female participation has overtaken male participation is that new teachers and nurses are today expected to have degrees.

This is also not a killer argument against our conclusions because there are consequences from having such an imbalance in genders in these professions. In particular, nursing and teaching are not brilliantly well-paid careers compared to some other graduate professions. So having far more women than men in take them up is an important part of the reason for the large gender pay gap after university. Moreover, if we worry about the shortage of female students taking STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), which is a problem on which hundreds of millions of pounds has been spent, should we not also worry when there is a similarly large gender disparity in the opposite direction in other discipline areas?

Another reason why we reject this second critique is that, even though (as above) more male teachers might do little to improve male educational performance, it might still be regarded as a little odd to have such a tiny proportion of new teachers who are men. There may be other reasons why we want more balanced workforces in our schools that have nothing to do with educational achievement. For example, as a parent and school governor, the shortage of male teachers concerns me because I think that schools should reflect wider society more and because I suspect there are many men who would make excellent teachers who are ending up in professions they find less rewarding. Similar arguments could apply to nursing.

All this goes to show that these are complicated issues with no easy answers and, as with so many policy debates, not all the good arguments are necessarily on the same side. But it remains the case that, overall, men are significantly outnumbered in higher education: they are in a minority among full-time students, part-time students, undergraduate students and postgraduate students. So, after all the debate over our report, it remains our view that the higher education sector, as well as policymakers, parents and schools, should address the problem in a more concerted way.

For the sake of completeness, it is also worth nothing that we were also criticised for including two endnotes referring to the website of a political group called the Justice for Men and Boys (and the Women Who Love Them) Party. The NUS blog mentioned above says: ‘Why make use of such a disreputable source, when so many sector experts are writing on similar subjects? You’ll have to ask the report’s authors.’

As the lead author, I will try to answer. In the first of these two endnotes, they were included as one of three separate examples to show ‘groups representing men’s interests claim to have found areas where hard evidence [of the underachievement of men] has been ignored.’ We did not express an opinion on whether any of the three sources were correct, worthy of respect and so on. Implying we somehow endorse the programme of a political party we know next to nothing about is absurd.

The second reference to the Justice for Men Party (who are not mentioned in the main text, only the endnotes) was to a Department for Education letter responding to a Freedom of Information request. This is available on the Justice for Men website because it was their Freedom of Information request. As the letter states very clearly that the Department for Education fund no initiatives to help boys, which is crucial piece of evidence to show Whitehall is not joined up on the issue of male underachievement, this seemed a relevant piece of evidence too important to ignore.

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