Last reviewed 22 November 2021

The continued underachievement of boys in primary and secondary education remains at the forefront of discussions about attainment. Kate Goulson examines this persistent issue.

The gender gap

Although overall attainment and equality of provision have improved greatly over the last 20 years, the UK’s National Curriculum assessment data shows a sustained difference between girls’ and boys’ attainment over that time, with boys consistently achieving less well on average. In 2019, 70% of girls reached the expected standard in KS2 reading, writing and maths, while only 60% of boys reached this level. The 2019 GCSE data showed a similar split, with 57% of boys and 65% of girls achieving a Grade 4 or above in both English and maths. These results show the same pattern as that of preceding years.

The detailed data shows a more complex picture.

  • The differences in achievement in KS2 reading and writing and KS4 English are particularly striking, with over 10% more girls than boys achieving the expected standards.

  • Although boys are underperforming on average, they actually slightly outperform girls in maths and dominate the highest performing group in this subject.

  • Given the significant presence of boys in the highest performing groups in certain subjects, as well as in the lowest performing groups in others, there is little evidence of any innate reasons for boys’ underachievement.

A pandemic anomaly

Both the 2020 and 2021 GCSE results showed a change, with girls edging slightly ahead in achieving the expected standard in maths, where boys usually perform better. However, these scores were derived very differently from previous years and under extraordinary circumstances. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the formal GCSE exams were cancelled and the grades were teacher-assessed based on a combination of coursework, classwork and in-school exams. Further results are needed under more comparable exam circumstances before it will be possible to see if this is a pattern, and whether boys are now falling behind in maths too.

Why are boys underachieving?

Understanding the causes of boys’ underachievement is complex. When considering the many simultaneous influences on a child’s academic achievement it becomes difficult to isolate the exact impact of each one, and the data shows that boys underachieve compared to girls across many different demographic groups. However, there are some influences which are thought to be particularly significant, including early language development, societal gender expectations, and the children’s own self-beliefs.

A 2016 report commissioned by Save the Children suggests that language and literacy differences can begin very early, with boys falling behind girls in these areas by the age of five. This can impact upon every element of their development, as children with lower language skills are less able to express their opinions and feelings, understand instructions, or communicate with their peers. Early problems in this area can continue to negatively affect a child’s achievement right through to KS4.

The report suggests that gendered expectations around play and behaviour during a child’s earliest years can have a significant impact on this difference in language development. Girls are often encouraged to engage in social and language-based forms of play including storytelling, make-believe and doll roleplay. These activities can also help the development of skills for independent learning including task focus, self-motivation and flexible thinking.

In contrast, boys are often encouraged to engage in more physical activities, such as running and climbing, conflict roleplay and sports, which do not necessarily facilitate as much overt language development. In addition, fewer boys than girls are observed to spend time on self-directed reading.

Another possible explanation for the persistent gap is the concept of “stereotype threat”, which is used to explain how knowledge of negative expectations can impact upon individual achievement. It puts forward the idea that when an individual is presented with a stereotype that applies to them, they will perform less well than those who haven’t discussed the stereotype.

For example, an expectation of lower attention spans from boys still persists in some quarters. Knowledge of this expectation amongst boys may influence their beliefs about their own attention spans and feed into manifesting that exact issue. This reinforces the idea that parents and educators should avoid voicing these stereotypes to children as much as possible, as this may exacerbate the problem.

What strategies are currently being used?

Improving boys’ general reading ability has been a major focus in trying to close the attainment gap. This has included introducing a wider range of texts into the classroom and giving students the opportunity to discuss them in a less formal and more integrated way, which has shown positive results in some schools.

With writing, similar strategies have been shown to have positive results in terms of improving boys’ confidence and achievement, including making time for discussion before starting to write, working in pairs and groups, and exploring ideas through roleplay and drama.

However, as is evident from the data, these initiatives have not had a significant impact on the attainment gap as yet. This may be partly due to schools being unable to test them properly because of timetabling constraints, as they are both significantly more time-consuming ways of working.

What more can be done to address boys’ underachievement?

Many of the discrepancies between boys’ and girls’ achievement have deep and complex roots in societal stereotypes and ingrained attitudes around gender, which are slow to change. However, there are further steps that teachers and parents can take to try and redress some of the balance.

There is little evidence for using “boy-specific” teaching methods and resources, which can potentially compound misleading ideas of inherent gender difference in learning ability. Instead, it is thought to be most effective for teachers to have strong and equal expectations for boys to succeed, alongside the strategies already in place to maximise the achievement of all pupils.

Key actions

  • Focus on equality of expectation across all groups.

  • Increase expectations on, and facilitation of, boys’ language development during their early years, as this can help raise attainment through to KS4.

  • Challenge stereotypes that reinforce ideas of gender-based academic ability, such as “girls enjoy reading more than boys” or “boys are better at maths”.

  • Enable educators to audit their own unconscious gender biases, including providing access to training where relevant.

  • Role-model gender-equal learning behaviours to help challenge pupils’ negative internalised beliefs. These could include:

    • Male teachers visibly reading for pleasure and discussing books regularly, including those with female protagonists, and vice versa.

    • Promoting well-known and relatable role models who challenge perceptions of gender-based academic achievement, such as footballer Marcus Rashford and his book club initiative.

    • Giving students more opportunities for group discussion around reading and before beginning writing tasks. Seeing their peers engaging in the process can give boys more confidence to participate.

Summary

  • Boys' underachievement is still a major issue overall.

  • However, more boys achieve higher levels in maths than girls.

  • Key language differences can become entrenched by age 5, so there is a need for intervention during the early years.

  • Children’s awareness of gender-based expectations could contribute to the problem.

  • Educators should regularly challenge their own possible unconscious gender expectations.