For the last decade, discourse on the substantial gap in rates of progression to higher education for working-class boys has been a regular focus of politicians, educators, and those with an interest in equitable access to educational opportunity.
Yet despite a persistent framing and re-framing of the issue in media and political conversation, gaps in GCSE attainment remain significant, and rates of progression to higher education for the group remain low.
There was a stir in higher education policy circles back in 2016 when HEPI released its report Boys to Men: The underachievement of young men in higher education – and how to start tackling it, and another one in 2018 when NEON released Working Class Heroes – Understanding access to higher education for white students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Both caused conversations across the sector on the issue to take place, but with little recognisable action as a result.
In 2019, an Access and Participation Plan review by the Office for Students suggested that of the 838 targets set relating to university access, success and progression by providers, only 11 gave specific mention to white working-class males.
In other words, against the backdrop of a consistent narrative in which the issue had been repeatedly platformed as one of importance, less than two percent of Access and Participation Plans gave any reference to the group whatsoever within their targets.
Events, dear boys, events
Of course, since then we’ve had a pandemic, a war in Europe, and a resultant cost of living crisis which has entrenched and exacerbated pre-existing educational inequality in nearly every conceivable way.
Looking at attainment data in my own region, around one in four boys who are on free school meals achieve grade 9-5 in GCSE Maths and English. Under the new government proposals for minimum entry requirements, this would effectively mean that three quarters of working-class boys in my locality would be systemically ruled out of even securing a student loan.
As a sector we need to engage seriously with this issue. Can the young people and communities we serve really wait for yet another report to tell us that, in a best-case scenario, the gaps in GCSE attainment and HE progression are still as wide as they were pre-pandemic?
While the new regulatory focus on pre-16 attainment for university Access and Participation Plans hasn’t been met with open arms in a number of institutions, it nevertheless provides an opportunity for universities to get together and think.
If we did want to include targets relating to boy’s attainment in our new Access and Participation Plans, how would we go about doing it meaningfully?
What would work?
What does meaningful and impactful work with working-class boys look like? How do we resist the urge to just go with what we think works, basing activity on unhelpful, and in some instances even harmful, assumptions about who working-class boys are and what they need?
To start with we can recognise what we don’t know and start to read and listen. There’s some fantastic research which is already out there by the likes of Diane Reay, Mike Ward, Nicola Ingram and Steve Roberts, all of whom have written books on working-class boys’ negotiations of identity, masculinity and educational success. There’s also great work that engages with classroom practice such as Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Education by Mark Roberts and Matt Pinkett.
However, all the reading in the world pales in comparison to the power of taking the time to actually listen – to stop “doing to” and start working with. At Arts University Bournemouth this year we’ve launched our Being a Boy project, mobilising creative subjects such as Creative Writing, Photography and Dance as vehicles for young men to express what being a boy means to them. We will then take the learning from this project to tailor something more targeted, based on the conversations and reflections which have taken place.
Throughout the process we’ll probably get an awful lot wrong. But we will also reflect, adjust, and move forward with the knowledge that those lessons provide. We’re keen to share that learning in the recognition that, for the sector to move to tackle the gaping chasm which constitutes the gap in working-class boys’ attainment and progression, we need to do so as a collective.
In early September, Arts University Bournemouth, the University of Portsmouth and the University of Winchester are convening a free joint conference for Higher Education practitioners to explore what can be done, and how, to better support working-class boys’ educational attainment and progression to higher education. If you would like to join us, you can book a free place.