Boys are falling behind girls at every level of education and young women are now 35 percent more likely to go to university than young men. Despite this, there is currently no Government policy dedicated to tackling the issue. Here one small organisation describes what they are doing on a day-to-day basis to help boys overcome the educational barriers they face.
Mengage Limited is a not-for-profit company working on male health and the issues that affect male health; we are a practitioner-led organisation using a ‘what works’ approach to work with boys and men, which means that we acknowledge that there are a diverse range of disciplines and theories involved in work with men – and that these can sometimes be at variance.
All of that said, an area of work that most people attending our workshops can agree on are the social determinants of health, a prominent one being education. Girls outperform boys in schools in the majority of subjects and are more likely to go onto higher education, a pattern that is not unique to Britain, but one that can also be found in other developed countries.
Poor academic achievement correlates with reduced social mobility, poor health outcomes and also criminality, therefore to address these concerns it is essential that we take action on improving boys’ education and preventing early school leaving.
Social determinants are often influenced by Government policy – and education is no different. In the UK, despite boys falling behind girls at every level of schooling, there is currently no recognised statutory programme for improving boys’ education. In contrast in Australia, for example, biannual National Boys Education Conferences are held and work programmes with a specific focus on improving boys’ education are a normalised part of education work.
However without a policy – and the funding this brings -- unlike some other social determinants of health, we can at least begin to address this in small part via workshops and initiatives that enthuse and provide knowledge and skills to UK teachers. Hence Mengage’s involvement in this field of work, with us criss-crossing the country visiting schools with our Raising Boy’s Achievement workshops for teachers and Mentoring Male accredited award for people interested in helping boys and young men in education through mentoring. It does of course help that one of the Mengage collective of practitioners - the author of this article - is a qualified teacher.
What follows is my account of one of our workshops – a day in the life of a practitioner.
The majority of schools we work in are secondary schools, primarily for financial reasons with secondary schools being much larger and having bigger budgets to bring in external support; the opportunity to work in a primary school doesn’t arise too often. So when offered work at a larger primary with some 620 students and 50 staff we were pleased to accept; admittedly it’s easier to work with 15-20 committed staff – we’ve worked with a lot more than 50 staff at one sitting in secondary schools, but primary education is where we can really tackle issues such as boys and literacy, so I was keen to accept the school’s invitation to work with them.
Ideological resistance to helping boys?
Working in a primary school setting is different to work in secondary schools and required a change of approach. The format I used included an obligatory powerpoint introduction about who we are and what we do -- and do not do. Experience of working in a gender-politicised area of work has meant we have had to build this into the start of many of our workshops. Whilst people know they are attending a workshop implicitly stating that it is about a boys and/or a men’s concern, people -- often those from ideological perspectives – question whether we should be giving special support for boys or work with men, or that sometimes emerging research perspectives challenges their own views. We acknowledge that people can hold different views, but Mengage does not hold to any politicised or ideological doctrine and this is reiterated during these slides along with a robust rationale as to why we are doing this.
Once the introductions are out of the way, to explore these personal perspectives and allow staff to air their opinions, I used an activity we commonly employ, which uses questions such as: “what do boys want to know about education?” “What do boys need to know about education?” “What do we remember about boys/girls when growing up?” and so on. Lots of participation and discussion ensued, informing me about their knowledge and opinions on work with boys and how they perceived them and this area of work (and as this was their first day back after Christmas the staff had conversations with each other about their holidays without being put under too much pressure to ‘perform’. Informality is part of the workshop!)
This then allowed me to explore research perspectives with them – challenging some of their views, looking at areas as diverse as neuroscience and literature, statistics and social mobility. I lovingly describe this as “the boring bit”, but it actually is the core that holds the whole workshop together. The discussion about the relevance of brain science and different viewpoints -- social construction of masculinity/feminist schooling, the cultures of young men -- onto psychology perspectives, action on social determinants and what does ‘salutogenic’ mean? This is the part that gets people to listen and get involved. Yes, you do need to know about best practice – but to improve practice you also need to build it on a sound research-based foundation, you need to know where practice is coming from. That took us up to a break and further discussion.
'The biggest issue? Literacy.'
After the break, we were into the main barriers to boys’ achievement in school; drawing on best practice, in this case a nod of approval has to go to a leading expert in the field of work on boys’ education Gary Wilson, who identified a number of specific barriers and how to counter these. I certainly recommend anyone with an interest in this area to take a look at Gary’s work, and I always acknowledge my sources – after all I’m a practitioner spreading best practice. Hence we took a look at boys’ early years in school, literacy concerns, whole school approaches, socio-cultural issues, emotional intelligence and having a male-inclusive classroom – a lot of territory to cover in a time-condensed workshop.
Literacy is far and away the biggest issue we encounter and normally I would spend a bit of time allowing the staff to come up with their own ideas around this – but on this occasion and wary of timing I set out pre-prepared flip chart paper headed with each of the barriers, allowed them to sit where they had a particular interest and gave them 15 minutes to come up with their own ideas.
This worked really well. They were coming up with great ideas for their own school – such as suggesting areas of the school where there could be male friendly displays, doing an audit of classrooms to see whether the displays are ‘too feminine’, doing ‘stay and play’ sessions (for both sexes) so that parents/grandparents come in and they all put their technology down and play board games – and others too. Feedback followed with my offering solutions I have collected running these workshops in many other schools and the staff then adding to them (a benefit of working cross-country is working with many different schools and picking up great ideas and sharing them) - experiential for both myself and the staff, as in future I’ll be running this particular part of the workshop in this way if there are more than a handful of staff.
The feedback at the end of the workshop was positive -- the Head teacher and the Deputy Head who had originally organised the workshop were grateful and I was able to drive home at the end of the day feeling that at the very least the staff I had worked with were aware of exactly why we need to work to improve boys’ education and were informed and enthused to do so.
'We shouldn't ask why boys are failures, but why the system is failing boys'
This group of teachers embraced the workshop content. We shouldn’t regard boys and young men as a homogeneous deficient group – a problem, but as heterogenous and unique individuals with attributes that should be nurtured and allowed to grow so that they can build on their own strengths and succeed rather than be pigeonholed as educational failures; that it’s their fault, rather than that of a system that doesn’t account for their differential needs and how to work with them. We all know or have had experience of a boy who does not fit in with the broad-brush strokes we are using and probably know a girl that doesn’t too. We need to recognise this – but we also need to acknowledge that boys are not doing well in education and that gender-sensitive steps need to be taken to address this and not continue in the gender-blind fashion that has allowed boys to fail with subsequent consequences for themselves and the wider community.
If that sounds a little too idealistic or that I’m surfing on a wave of enthusiasm, I’m soon brought down to earth in the days following the workshop. There is a barrier to making all of this work, and one that many people will encounter. How many times have you been to a workshop or conference, come away enthused and ready to put what you’ve learnt into action only to be told by a manager or head of department who hadn’t attended that it wasn’t going to happen, it didn’t fit with the department’s ethos - etc? In this instance, upon finishing the workshop, the enthusiastic Deputy Head asked me to write a ‘quick check document’, a Red, Amber, Green rated checklist that could be applied to all aspects of the school environment to enable them to identify areas where they are letting boys down and so on – “stay in touch”. Sounds great?
I have emailed the Deputy Head about this several times since but to no avail. Our mentoring workshops are repeat business, we’re invited back as people want to train to be mentors and understand boys’ issues and concerns, but a workshop for busy teachers on raising boys’ achievement? It would seem, as schools have so many pressures on them, that once this workshop is completed they are already moving on to the next thing. As a teacher I’m aware of this.
You could say that it’s a thankless task, and why do it when there is easier work to be had, but there is no provision for this area of work currently coming from Government and limited guidance for practitioners. So whilst that remains the case, as practitioners we will remain out on the road talking about work with boys and men and applying theory to practice – because, small company though we are and as frustrating as this work can be, we believe it can make a difference.
By Liam Kernan