Balcarras features in article on boys’ achievement

On Sunday 31st March the Sunday Telegraph ran an article on boys’ achievement. In it the journalist, outlined how boys are outperformed by girls at almost every level of English education. Balcarras was mentioned in the article because we have had huge success in narrowing the attainment gap between girls an boys so that during the years 2019 to 2022 there was no discernible gap.

Balcarras was contacted by the All Parliamentary Group on Boys’ Achievement last year and has worked with the group to share our experience. We are very proud that both boys and girls achieve so highly in the school. Last year Balcarras came 30th out of over 3000 comprehensive schools based on % achieving 5+ in English and Maths.

A copy of the article is below.

The ‘silent crisis’ writing off British boys

Why the UK risks consigning its next generation of men to life’s scrapheap

Britain has a boy problem. If you are born male today, you are increasingly likely to struggle in school, in the workplace and at home.

The gender attainment gap is not new – girls have been outperforming boys at GCSE level for over three decades now, while the number of women completing degrees has exceeded the number of men since the 1990s.

But solving the problem of underachievement among boys has never been more crucial. Economic growth is stalling, productivity is flatlining and public finances are creaking under the strain of growing benefits bills.

At a time when businesses are struggling to hire, more and more men are dropping out of the workforce.  Everyone in society must achieve their fullest potential if we are to fix our economic problems.

There is a political dimension too – William Hague earlier this month raised the alarm about the growing numbers of disaffected young men who, with little offered or promised to them in life, were turning to far-Right politics.

There is nothing innate about boys’ underachievement. There is no fundamental reason why outcomes should be getting worse.

Yet without a concerted effort to close the attainment gap, it seems destined to widen. Ever more men and boys will find themselves unwittingly consigned to life’s scrapheap.

The problem is clear – where are the solutions

Deepening development gap

Before children even step a foot inside the classroom, boys are already behind.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) notes that “a significant gender gap in both cognitive and socio-emotional development” emerges by the age of three.

By the time children start primary school, two-thirds of girls have reached a “good level of development”, suggesting they are able to write a simple sentence or count beyond 20.

Just under two-thirds of boys have hit that same milestone. For children eligible for free school meals, the disparity is even larger.

This gap that opens up at three never completely closes, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ (IFS) analysis of Department for Education data.

Boys consistently behind

“There’s a silent crisis brewing among boys and men in our classrooms, workplaces and communities,” says Richard Reeves, academic and author of Of Boys and Men, which explores the male malaise from cradle to career.

“Boys now lag behind girls and men lag behind women at almost every level of education. That’s true in nearly every rich economy.”

Reeves, a former adviser to Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, says biology is behind isomer of this gap. 

All the academic evidence suggests that the prefrontal cortex – or in Reeves’s words “the part of the brain that helps you get your act together” – develops around a year or two faster in girls than boys.

Girls are not smarter, they just mature faster, Reeves says. “Anyone who spends any time with teenagers knows exactly what I’m talking about.”

His conclusion is that there are simply some “natural advantages of women and girls in the education system”.

Rather than recognise and compensate for this, the system has in fact evolved in ways that favour girls. A switch to more coursework at GCSE level benefitted girls more than boys, according to the IFS, which noted that the gap in performance first emerged in the 1980s when exam-based O levels were replaced by GCSEs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“The shake-up brought a move towards more continuous assessment, which seems to have benefitted girls,” the IFS said in a recent paper.

This idea is “quite hard to get this across because many people say: well if girls and women always had this natural advantage, why didn’t we see it 40 years ago?” Reeves says. “The answer is sexism.

“There is no doubt my mum would have gone to university if she was born 50 years later, but it wasn’t considered to be a thing. But now having taken the lid off, that potential for women in education just keeps going. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that along the way a lot more men have fallen behind.”

Woes of the white working class

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest women were doing better than men in the working world. A medium gender pay gap of 7.7 pc still shows women are being shortchanged.

After graduation, men are more likely to get a “highly skilled” job than women and average earnings for a male graduate are around 9pc higher than a female a year after they leave university, according to the IFS.

That gap rises to 31pc a decade later.

However, what is worrying academics, politicians and teachers is that attainment among men and boys seems to be declining while for women it improves.

Average pay adjusted for inflation has fallen by 6.9pc for men since 2008, according to ONS data. Among women, it has climbed 2.2pc. In fact, men’s wages are no higher in real terms today than they were in 2002.

Men have been behind the fall in average hours worked since the pandemic, while women are working more.

Louise Murphy at the Resolution Foundation says the worsening prospects for boys and men reflect structural factors.

“The industrial structure of the UK has changed. Some of these manufacturing jobs that existed don’t exist in the same way now.”

Reeves says: “It used to be true that men with relatively modest levels of education do OK in the labour market. And that is not always the case anymore.”

The experience of boys in schools has led them to “underperform in the labour market” more broadly, he adds.

Achievement has become a particular issue among one subset of boys in particular: the white working class.

“Too many people in society just see these boys as the people on mopeds with a balaclava on their head,” says Andy Eadie, assistant headteacher at Cardinal Langley school in Rochdale. “Actually, that’s only a tiny minority.”

Eadie has taught at the mixed comprehensive school of 1,200 pupils since 2016. A fifth of his pupils are eligible for free school meals.

Many have already been “written off” by teachers as soon as they enter the classroom, Eadie says, particularly if they are white working class boys.

“There is a perception that some boys are already signed off and have no hope,” he says.

“The danger is that people aren’t bothered about these gaps. They’re just bothered about keeping them quiet so they can get on with other things.”

Just 14.6pc of white working class boys went into higher education in 2021. This was the lowest figure of any ethnic or socio-economic group and a third of the overall average, according to research published by the House of Commons Library.

Eadie says: “A lot of young people in the white working class background actually have really low self-esteem.

“And so you’ve got a lot of young people who potentially all underachieve and not feel very good about themselves.”

There are signs that this malaise is adding to Britains's worklessness crisis. One in three 18 to 24-year-old boys were classed as economically inactive – meaning they’re not in work or looking for a job – in the three months to January, a record high.

The figure is up by more than five percentage points since the end of 2019, before the pandemic. Inactivity among 50 to 64-year-old men has climbed five times slower over the same period.

The inactivity rate among young men has roughly doubled since the early 90s, with almost two million now out of the labour force.

Some are choosing to stay on in education but the share of men not in employment, education or training (NEET) is climbing back towards financial crisis rates at 15.3pc. For women, it has remained on a bumpy but downward path.

Men now more likely to shun education, employment and training

“I think it goes back to the idea that we just don’t expect our boys to do well. So they don’t do well,” says Conservative MP Nick Fletcher, who leads the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for men and boys.

Caroline Barlow, headteacher at Heathfield Community College, has submitted evidence to the APPG suggesting there was a culture of low expectations for male students. 

“In the early days, there was a tendency to almost just be grateful if boys were there and they were doing some work,” she said.

By shifting teachers’ expectations of their pupils, results improved and Heathfield was also able to close the gender gap.

Fletcher says: “We expect our boys to behave badly, so they behave badly. We are letting our boys down and unless we actually recognise we have a problem, then we won’t really start searching for the solution.”

Where does the problem start? Some think it is in the home.

Family circumstances have changed dramatically over the past few decades, with a sharp rise in lone parent households as divorce becomes more common or people don’t even get married in the first place. The vast majority of children in these circumstances grow up with their mothers.

In part, this reflects the economic empowerment of women: they can afford to be a single parent.

However, it raises the question of where male role models are coming from. Research conducted jointly by the Fatherhood Institute found that fathers who read to their children every day are contributing to their development and can help to address early attainment gaps.

The Conservative peer Lord Willetts writes in his book, The Pinch: “A welfare system that was ­originally designed to compensate men for loss of earnings is slowly and messily redesigned to compensate women for the loss of men.”

This too can leave men rudderless in mid-life.

As Reeves puts it in his book: “Economically independent women can now flourish whether they are wives or not. Wifeless men, by contrast, are often a mess. Compared to married men, their health is worse, their employment rates are lower, and their social networks are weaker.”

Crisis in masculinity’

The underachievement of men and boys was once seen as almost taboo.

“There have been people who have sniggered when I stood up and asked for a minister for men and a men’s health strategy,” says Fletcher.

“I genuinely believe some of the problems we face are down to the lack of interest in young boys and men, who we’ve always assumed are going to be fine.”

However, politicians have now started to notice.

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, has announced that Labour is looking at introducing a men's health strategy to address what he describes as a “crisis in masculinity” that is costing lives.

It is understood that Labour's forthcoming review into mental health by Luciana Berger will include a chapter that focuses on male suicide. It remains the biggest killer of British men aged under 35.

William Hague, the former Tory leader, believes the issue is reshaping politics. He recently highlighted that a majority of men now believe they are being discriminated against, which is fuelling support among young men for extreme parties.

Fletcher is calling for a dedicated minister for men to match the minister for women, Kemi Badenoch, who is also part of the Cabinet as Business Secretary.

Despite overwhelming evidence that boys are falling behind, some colleagues still treat the idea of a dedicated minister with ridicule.

Fletcher says: “I think one of the problems that we’ve had as a society is there’s a lot of reluctance to speak up for men. We’ve noticed it in parliament over the years.”

Reeves wants to challenge the longstanding assumption that gender gaps only run on way. 

He takes particular issue with the World Economic Forum (WEF), which looks at progress on gender equality across the world.

Countries are scored on a scale from zero to one, with the former representing no equality and the latter signalling full equality. The problem, says Reeves, is that the index itself assumes that only women have any catching up to do.

For example, it “assigns the same score to a country that has reached parity between women and men and one where women have surpassed men”.

This is a deliberate choice. However, as a result the UK’s educational attainment score stands at 0.999 despite the fact that girls have clearly outperformed boys for decades.

Reeves believes continuing to publish the index in this way is damaging and leads “to a lack of policy attention to the problems of boys and men”. In short, he says: “It makes no sense to treat gender inequality as a one-way street.”

The Government insists it is making progress, with a Department for Education spokesman saying the gender gap “across most headline measures is narrowing across all key phases.

“Education standards have risen sharply across the country, with 90pc of schools now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, up from just 68pc in 2010.”

Reeves offers some radical solutions to closing the attainment gap in his book, including starting boys a year later in school. Many teachers and academics believe this is not practical and Reeves himself says the idea was designed to spark a debate.

Reeves says the evidence also suggests children should take more frequent breaks at school because boys find it harder than girls to sit still. He himself was put in a special class for English because his teachers felt he lacked focus.

At Balcarras secondary school in Cheltenham, headteacher Dominic Burke felt the only way to tackle what used to be a 15pc gender gap in the GCSE results was to level with his students.

“We got the boys together en masse and said to them: ‘You’re going to underachieve. The girls are going to beat you hands down’. And then we showed them the evidence. Their ability profiles were the same. But we said the reality is girls are going to get better results than you and we challenge you to be the first year group to stop that. We called it the ‘effort challenge’.”

It worked. Competition and the offer of cold, hard cash was enough to encourage many to put the effort in. Boys who were judged to have done so received £20 at the end of term. The school managed to close the gender gap and a few years ago, the boys beat the girls for the first time.

“Competition does work I think, and it’s a good tactic for teaching because it becomes a rewarding experience to meet the challenge,” says Burke. “If you make something more engaging and enjoyable, people are more likely to do it.”


No survey of the state of boys and men in Britain today can ignore the changing ideas of masculinity. 

Whereas men were once seen as breadwinners, American sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas point out that many women in poor US neighbourhoods have come to see them “as just another mouth to feed”. This is disorientating.

Yet perhaps the way to survive as a man in the job market of the future is to junk ideas of traditional masculinity altogether. Many of the jobs of the future will be in things like caring and education.

Reeves wants governments to spearhead a drive to get more men into health, education, administration, and literacy jobs – which he brands HEAL – just as they have ploughed efforts into getting more women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – or STEM roles.

Increasing the number of male teachers would also raise the number of role models for boys in class. Three-quarters of state school teachers are women, according to data published by the Department for Education.

The share of men working in state-funded nurseries is even lower, at just 14pc. Around 30pc of primary schools have no male teachers at all.

“I did actually get some funny looks when I first started,” says one male nursery worker who does not wish to be identified. 

“Even now I tend to leave the cuddles to my female colleagues as I think there’s still a stereotype that any man who wants to work with young kids has to be some kind of pervert.”

Encouraging more men into these types of jobs would be no small undertaking. Perceptions that men are not suited to caring or creative professions are deep-seated.

Florence Nightingale, who in the 19th century established the principles of modern nursing, insisted that men’s “hard and horny” hands were “not fitted to touch, bathe and dress wounded limbs, however gentle their hearts may be”. The Royal College of Nursing did not even admit men as members until 1960.

Edward Davies, policy director at the Centre for Social Justice think tank, cautions: “It’s absolutely right to remove cultural, perceived and real barriers that keep men from certain careers, especially caring and teaching professions. But we also need to be careful not to pretend men and women are exactly the same.

“At a blunt population level women seem more interested in people and men in things. You would expect to see that reality play out in the jobs they do too. Imposing quotas or expectations that all professions should be evenly split between men and women will probably drive some people into careers they are not suited to.”

Fixing Britain’s boy problem may be harder than even experts think.