How to deliver on working-class boys and progression to HE

Alex Blower makes the case for accelerated progress on progression to higher education for young working-class men

Alex Blower is Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth

Six years ago, HEPI published the report Boys to Men: The underachievement of young men in higher education – and how to start tackling it.

It was an attempt to grapple with one of the most persistent challenges in the UK education system – the gap in GCSE outcomes and progression to higher education for young working-class men.

We’re now over half a decade on from the HEPI report, and we find ourselves confronting the fact that the rate of progression to higher education for the group is still at a dismal 14 per cent.

Is it because the sector has tried to engage with the issue and failed? Or is it because we haven’t really tried at all?

Sadly, I believe the latter to be the case. The contributory elements to the disparity in educational outcomes are complex, messy, and can be difficult to engage in a meaningful, constructive discussion around. All too often, the issue is mobilised by agendas that seek to sow division, which comes at the expense of creating a future where our young men can expect to lead happy, secure, and fulfilled lives.

We spend time doing nothing because it’s easier than doing something. Waiting for someone to tell us “what works” – to hand us a silver bullet so we can tackle the issue quickly, efficiently, and with minimal fuss.

If that is what we’re waiting for we’ll be waiting a long time. And while we wait, 8 in 10 boys on Free School Meals in my locality will continue not to achieve a 9-5 in GCSE Maths and English each year. They are structurally ruled out of future opportunities for study, and the systemic inequalities within our education system are entrenched.

Convening around the issue

Last month, Arts University Bournemouth held a conference which convened higher education practitioners and researchers from across the UK. Organised in partnership with the Universities of Portsmouth and Winchester, the event brought together widening participation professionals to examine the issue and drive forward a collective approach to action.

We know from the current OfS consultation on new Access Participation Plans that the regulator are keen for universities to ramp up interventions to support pre-16 attainment. But how do we go about it for boys on Free School Meals?

The conference centralised the importance of negotiations surrounding masculinity. It explored how intersecting experiences based on young men’s social, geographic and historical locations played out in their lives as learners in a classroom.

And, perhaps most importantly, it provided a platform for the voices of young men to be heard, challenging assumptions about who working-class boys are, what they like, and how they imagine their future selves.

The day prompted discussions about how the sector could refocus its efforts. Concentrating less on the what of delivering activity, and more on the how we go about it. It presented the Taking Boys Seriously key principles as an evidence base for piloting new activity, and launched a new dashboard on boys’ GCSE outcomes for universities to use in strategic targeting of initiatives. A tool allowing institutions to take a data-led approach in activity designed to raise the pre-16 attainment of working-class boys.

A call to action.

The key principles and the dashboard provide a guiding light. A way that practitioners can mobilise any subject area or specialism as a tool for exploration and in a way that’s meaningful for young working-class men.

But the challenge is substantial, and given the sparsity of activity currently taking place, it’s urgent.

Institutions taking the lessons learned from the conference and individually applying them in practice would be better than our current position, but it would still not be enough.

The day called for a collective approach to action in this space. One which provides the bandwidth to tailor activity which meets the needs of our young men and their communities at a local level. One in which higher education institutions can be a convening force, demonstrating a civic commitment to supporting young men on Free School Meals in their localities through collaborative action. One which includes schools, community groups, third sector organisations, and, most importantly, the young people themselves.

The conference presented a vision for a series of Boys’ Impact Hubs. Regional groups that brought together key stakeholders from education, the community and the local authority to pilot activity designed to support working-class boys’ attainment.

With the Taking Boys Seriously principles and dashboard, universities already have the how.

By convening the right stakeholders around the table, the what and the when can easily take place.

Coalition building

Institutions wouldn’t be going it alone. Each of the Impact Hub Leads would form part of a Boys’ Impact Coalition. A national group that would champion good practice, support evaluation, and have a national voice in issues related to inequality, education and progression to Level 4 study for all boys from working-class backgrounds.

It’s a fantastic vision – but, at present it is just that, a vision for what could be. For the vision to become a reality, higher education professionals must be bold in their willingness to try something new. In the near future, there will be an online meeting bringing together practitioners from across the country to discuss turning this vision into a reality. You can express an interest in joining the meeting.

In the meantime, an important first step would be to ensure that when the Office for Students’ review of new Access and Participation Plans for 2024 is conducted, targets relating to supporting working-class boys’ attainment are significantly better represented.

One response to “How to deliver on working-class boys and progression to HE

  1. As a former secondary school governor I have seen much on this subject, the biggest issue surrounding this is the lack of acknowledgement of the systemic discrimination against white working-class boys, all too often framed by the white middle and upper classes trying to assuage their personal guilts. The cultural changes required to rectify this are huge and will take much time and effort, getting rid of the artificial intersectionally divisive classifications would be a good start.

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