Is Action Overdue on Boys’ Academic Underachievement?

The aim of this briefing paper is to collate basic factual data on gender and education with a view to informing public debate.

There are efforts on the part of some journalists, for example (Ally Fogg, Guardian-on-line, 13-12-12) and government ministers (universities minister, David Willetts, Guardian-on-line, 03-01-13) to consider the implications of educational data showing disadvantage to males. However, the typical pattern of media coverage and ministerial comment on gender might be said to paint a picture of disadvantage to females only. In the interest of achieving a balanced view and in order to inform public debate, some basic data is collated here in the hope of clarifying the positions of both males and females within our educational system.

Boys’ low achievement in school, by comparison to girls, is not a new issue. A relative deficit in the number of boys securing five or more higher grade (A* to C) passes in GCSE was apparent in the late 1980’s. The gender gap continues to the present time and is observed throughout the various school based assessment stages, starting at primary school (ages 5, 7 and 11 years), then at GCSE and A-level, and in the UK university population (see Figures below and Tables 1 to 8 in APPENDIX).

Ways forward may include: addressing negative stereotypes about boys; establishing whether the current government’s Department for Education (DfE) has an equality view which extends to boys; research into boys’ underachievement which includes work carried out by male researchers; acknowledging the importance of male role models; and making serious and sustained attempts to increase the number of male teachers in schools.

The latest university population figures as set out in the UCAS End of Cycle report, 2012, concluded that, amongst UK domiciled 18 year olds, women were 32 per cent more likely to enter higher education than men; a difference that has increased this cycle. In 2012 the decrease in the entry rate for men was four times greater than for women. If the acceptance rate for men was 100 per cent the resulting entry rate for men would still be below that of women.


Boys have not always underachieved by comparison to girls. Available records for ‘school leavers’ go back to 1963 when boys had a slightly higher success rate at GCSE/CSE. Girls’ higher success rate started in 1970 and by 1989 the rate had increased to 6% more girls than boys at 16 years old achieving the criterion of five or more passes at grades A*- C3. It may be that cultural changes over that period, inside and outside school, have worked to the disadvantage of boys.

The underachievement of boys is evident at all stages of education, starting at 5 years of age and culminating in a smaller proportion of male university students. Over a period of more than twenty years boys have remained disproportionately disadvantaged with little done to help. It seems likely that this position would be unacceptable if it were girls experiencing such disadvantage. Are boys being ignored?


Fig 1 -8 and Table 1 -8.

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