Education: Underachieving schoolboys 'must be a priority'

Lewis Boys' School class
Image caption Confidence can be a factor, say teachers

Underachieving schoolboys must be made a higher priority, according to an education consultant.

Overall, GCSE performance at A* to C was 9.8% lower for boys than girls this year, continuing a well-established pattern.

Alan Evans said "We're closing doors to 10-15% of boys who will continually underachieve for the rest of their lives."

The gender attainment gap is particularly pronounced in literacy.

Across the country the proportion of boys achieving top grades in English was 17% lower than girls.

The problem is not unique to Wales.

"It's very bad in Wales and in England and in most developed countries, it's very bad", according to Mr Evans, who has spent 20 years researching the issue and has partnered on projects with Cardiff University's school of social sciences.

He suggested the issue did not get much attention because the top 10% of boys perform well at A-level, including getting more A* grades, and average salaries for men are higher than for women.

'A lack of confidence in their own ability'

Last year, when Lucy Hacker joined all-boys Lewis School Pengam in Caerphilly county as head of English, she noticed some of the pupils seemed afraid of trying and failing, and avoided making too much effort to save face.

"There was no lack of ability but there was certainly a lack of confidence in their own ability," she said.

Image caption From a young age boys get subliminal messaging that English is not a subject for them, says teacher Lucy Hacker

She worked on instilling confidence in the boys, and this summer the school saw an 11% improvement in their GCSE English results.

"A lot of it has to do with societal expectations, subliminal messaging that they are getting from quite an early age that English just isn't a subject for the boys," she said.

"If I think of the boys here - we do have very hard working boys - but the best kind of persona to project I feel is someone who is very, very smart but who doesn't have to work at it that much."

Image caption Deliberately not trying too hard can affect pupils' futures, says 15-year-old Mitchell

However Ms Hacker said there was no "magic formula" and she had used the same approaches as with her previous mixed-sex classes.

"It's good teaching and learning, good planning, but most importantly fostering good relationships with the students," she said.

One of her pupils Mitchell, 15, said: "People may think it's cooler to not try as hard but that just affects their schoolwork and their potential futures."

Where are the gaps?

The gender attainment gap is particularly pronounced in literacy.

Across the country the proportion of boys achieving top grades in English was 17% lower than girls.

Mr Evans said there were 14 subjects in Wales where the gap between boys and girls was between 10 and 20%.

Crucially, those subjects include English (16.9%), English literature (15.9%), Welsh first language (16%), Welsh literature (16.2%) and Welsh second language (21.1%).

In the two Maths GCSEs there is a more equal picture - the number of boys getting A* to C was 2% higher in maths: numeracy and 2.4% lower in mathematics.

Image caption Lewis School Pengam improved its GCSE English results this year by 11%

Mr Evans said more boys meeting their potential would benefit all pupils and society. Aged 16-18, boys in Wales are more likely than girls to be "NEETs" - not in education, employment or training.

He said raising boys' aspirations, and lifting the expectations of parents, teachers, and policymakers, were key issues.

Chris Parry, the head teacher of Lewis School Pengam, which is the only remaining all-boys state school in Wales, highlighted the link between performance in exams and getting a job.

"Focusing on these issues is really important because these are the pupils that are going to drive the Welsh economy in the future and I think maximising the performance of girls and boys is key to that."

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