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Educational Performance: Boys

Volume 614: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2016

Colleagues, this is a one-hour debate and it is massively over-subscribed. You are not all going to get in. If you keep your comments to three minutes, most of you will get in, but I am afraid that if you do not—with the exception of Mr McCartney, obviously—you are not all going to get in. Minister, you will have 10 minutes at the end. The SNP spokesman and the Labour spokesman will have five minutes each. I call Mr McCartney to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the educational performance of boys.

It is a pleasure to follow my greater Lincolnshire colleague, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who has now left, and to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Walker. I am pleased to see so many Members from both sides of the House here. I hope everyone will have an opportunity to take part in the debate, should they so wish.

I am delighted to lead the debate, because the educational underachievement of boys is a one nation issue. It is an equality and fairness issue and an issue that should be front and centre of the country’s conversation on education and social mobility. The issue of our gender education gap and its impact has not been addressed adequately by this House or by successive Governments of all colours and the education sector seems reluctant to take action on it. That is a shame. This issue is not just about working-class boys or no-income families, albeit those groups do need attention. It is an issue that affects boys across the board, including a group so often missed out—boys from low to low-middle income households.

As Members of this House, we all hold dear the desire to ensure that every young person in our great country has the opportunity to make the most of their life and their skills. We also want a cohesive society, the opportunity for social mobility for all and a successful economy—even more so in a positive post-Brexit economy. We may all have different ideas on how to achieve that, but surely our aims are all the same.

The reason for the debate is to set out what the gaps are, the impact to date, the reasons and what action needs to be taken, for it is such positive action to tackle this inequality that has been lacking, and which needs to be quickly addressed. We cannot afford to keep letting further generations of our boys down by not addressing this glaring gender education gap. Talk, or more talk and no action, will no longer pass muster.

It is also important to set out the framework of the debate, which is about closing the gap between the educational performance of boys and girls, but not at the cost of reducing girls’ performance. That is a socialist creed which I will not countenance. I want levels of attainment for all to be comparable and raised, not lowered. We need the performance of both to keep on improving, but for the gap between them to close.

It has to be recognised that the performance of boys has continued to improve over time. The number of boys going to university each year is 46,000 higher than a decade ago and there has been a steady improvement in GCSE and A-level results. What has stayed the same, though, is the clear gap between boys and girls, and in some areas such as higher education the gap is increasing. At key stage 2—in old money that is 11-year-olds—the pass rate gap is six percentage points and boys are often already behind on entering primary school. For five GCSEs including English and maths in England, the gap is now nine percentage points and in my county of Lincolnshire it is 10 percentage points. The gap at 16 years of age in Wales is 7.5%, in Scotland 7% and in Northern Ireland 7.3%. For the English baccalaureate the gap is just under 10%.

As we move further through the education system, at A-level the average grade for a boy is C and for a girl is C-plus, albeit a higher percentage of boys achieve three A’s or A*s than girls. In terms of higher education, fewer boys go to university, due to lower attainment in earlier school or college years—60,000 fewer in 2015, and there is a gap of more than 460,000 over the last 10 years. Results at university also show that boys will achieve lower grades and are more likely to drop out. Two thirds of all courses now have more women than men on them.

As we all know and see every day in our constituencies, while facts are one thing, it is the actual impact on the lives of individuals and their families that matters. The gap affects our community, our businesses and our ability to compete as a nation. I see its impact when driving around certain areas in the daytime and I see young men hanging around when they should be in work, on an apprenticeship or at university or college.

With reference to the impact on the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and all our constituencies, in some instances—in Northern Ireland, for example—targeted interventions have taken place. In particular, in literacy and numeracy we had a programme over two years that seemed to get to the nub of the problem. Unfortunately it did not go far enough and there was not enough money spent on it, but that was a good targeted intervention and we should look to projects like that for the future to try to address that problem.

I agree with my colleague, who makes a very good point, and it is something that I will cover later on in my speech. I am happy to take as many interventions as possible.

Most males who are not in education, employment or training are unemployed. For those men with no or low skills, that has an impact on their mental health, employment and predilection to commit crime. Those men constitute the largest group in our criminal justice system. When it comes to apprenticeships, there are now 30,000 more female apprentices, a trend and gap that has been in place for at least the past five years. After university, a lower percentage of male graduates will be in full-time work, a higher percentage will be unemployed and far fewer enter the professions. Nowadays, there are more women becoming doctors, vets, dentists, solicitors and teachers than men every year, which reflects the numbers taking related degrees. Twice as many women are now training to be a GP as men.

We can see that all played out when it comes to wages. According to the Office for National Statistics, on average men in full-time or part-time work under 29 years of age are paid less per hour on average than similarly aged women. That remarkable transition flies in the face of the shrill equal pay brigade, who while proclaiming the need for equality seem quietly to gloss over that fact when shouting from the rooftops with regard to equal pay. I want equal pay for those with equivalent experience and qualifications and skill levels regardless of their gender or age.

What is causing the gap—a gap that broadly was not there before the 1980s but which has been increasing since then? That has been an area of some contention, which may partly explain why so little investigation has so far taken place, because it is difficult to agree or find solutions if there is no agreement on what is causing the problem. In essence there are a number of themes.

The first is that boys develop more slowly in their teen years than girls, so boys and girls are not at the same natural development level, even when they are the same age. Many of us long ago accepted that boys and girls are different. The second is around social attitudes and background. There is some evidence that boys have less positive attitudes towards education than girls have, and that they receive less support at home. The role of fathers and/or role models is seen as vital to instilling in their sons the importance of education.

On that note of support at home, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the issues is with parents’ confidence in their own literacy? Reading to their children can be quite intimidating if their own standards of literacy are poor. Is it not therefore necessary for the Government to focus on that area to address the early years?

My colleague from Hazel Grove makes a very good point.

Perhaps longer working hours and one-parent families where the father is not the primary carer are also an issue. The economy has changed, so the value of job opportunities in masculine-type work, such as in heavy industry, has changed, or such jobs are not as available as they once were.

Another theme is whether the education system is boy-friendly. I believe that the educational system, schools and the sector as a whole are not focused enough on supporting boys. That could be because schools lack understanding about boys and what makes them tick. Practical education, a level of freedom to think and act for themselves, clear goal-setting, career and subject choice support, all within a clear disciplinary framework, are needed, as is an environment that nurtures and celebrates, and does not denigrate, masculinity. The situation is exacerbated by a lack of male teachers and role models in schools. If boys see only women in schools, in whatever roles, that reinforces their view that education is just for girls.

I and others have noticed that the majority of pictures in the national papers recently—each year, it seems—were just of girls celebrating their exam success, not boys and girls, which perhaps sends a subliminal message to boys that education and success are a girl issue and not for them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he not agree that one of the key things for young men in particular is motivation and aspiration? I note that a few years ago Ofsted said in a report that,

“a third of the schools failed to provide sufficient opportunities for students to engage directly with local businesses.”

Does he not think that if we get more businesses to provide role models and experiences for young men, they are more likely to get motivated about opportunities and then focus more on their studies to help them to achieve those goals and aspirations?

Indeed, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I point him in the direction of what is now Career Ready—it was formerly Career Academies UK. I helped to set up a Career Ready in my constituency. It is very much a London-and-south-east-centric charity, but I believe it needs to be rolled out across the country.

Perhaps the education sector shies away from any focus on boys because it is not politically correct. Certainly, there is deafening silence from the education trade unions and others. There would be no silence if the genders were reversed—of that I am sure. Also, the move from all-or-nothing exams to continual assessment at GCSE has been seen as favouring a female way of learning, albeit with the recent changes swinging the pendulum slightly back towards a level playing field.

I think this debate is very important and much needed, coming from an area that is still reliant on heavy industry—although there have been setbacks in the last couple of years, whether that be the steel sector or indeed potash mining or the chemical industry. What is of real concern, particularly for young men who seek skills-based training for employment, is the Brexit vote. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, my area of Teesside and east Durham was one of the primary areas of European social fund and European development fund funding for sector-specific training in industry, which primarily benefited young men who needed skills training to enter heavy industrial work.

The hon. Gentleman from the Opposition, who is my friend, makes a valid point from his point of view, but I would counter that I see Brexit as much more positive than perhaps he does.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. It should be remembered that this problem has arisen while we have been in the EU, not as the result of any prospect of leaving. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the initiatives that have been undertaken in the Greater Shankill area in my constituency, which is one of the most deprived areas, suffered a lot during the troubles and has a lot of educational underachievement among young boys? One of the things we have done is to create a children and young people’s zone, which brings together educationalists, school teachers, community activists and agencies of Government to work together with children from the earliest age to try to tackle this particular issue.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I thank him for making a good point, to which we should all pay attention. As I was saying, the pendulum has slightly swung back towards a level playing field and it will be interesting to see whether that makes any difference to the gender educational gap over the next few years.

Lastly, there is something else at play around the 16 to 18 age range regarding the welfare system, especially for low or no-income families: the effect on young men who may be reluctant to take up an apprenticeship because their families will lose their child benefits and it will affect their working tax credit. Some families do not want their sons or daughters to take up apprenticeships. That is an issue encountered by a well-respected and successful training provider in Lincolnshire called Lagat, which has made me aware of examples of opportunities being denied to young people of both genders because their families do not wish to be disadvantaged financially. My colleagues in Government need to take heed and act positively to ensure that this penalty is removed quickly.

Two things strike me about this issue. First, there is not a wholesale body of research or agreement on the causes, and it seems that the educational sector is not focused on the issue at all. That is despite the valuable work by pressure groups, charities and think tanks, and from organisations such as the Higher Education Policy Institute—particularly its “Report 84”, authored by Nick Hillman and Nicholas Robinson, with a foreword by Mary Curnock Cook, which I recommend to anyone who is interested in the issue. Other organisations doing good research on the matter include Save the Children, the boys reading commission, which is part of the National Literacy Trust, the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility Commission and many others.

Secondly, there does not seem to be agreement on what causes the gender educational gap, which makes it far harder to decide what to do to address the problem positively. I have set out the statistics, impacts and the broad debate on the causes, but what are the solutions? We know that the limited number—if there are any—of solutions that have been implemented are not working, because the gap is not closing.

The first theme is to encourage and instil in the minds of parents and sons that a good education is to their benefit, and to reinstil a sense of aspiration, pride and understanding. As Steve Biddulph’s books on parenting show, parents need to step up to the plate too, to ensure that boys are inspired and given opportunities to excel and aspire to do as well as their fellow female pupils at all ages. Using practical examples, case studies, mentors, destination data, inspirational people from the local community, the National Citizen Service and other such methods will surely have a positive effect as quickly as possible. We have to provide clear reasons for boys to go to school and college and to concentrate and work hard while they are there. We need to communicate with parents to ensure that through the interaction they are offered they support boys every step of the way.

The fact that girls from low and no-income families still do better in educational attainment means that parental attitudes are not the only issue at play in this arena. The educational sector at a national and local level has to, and can, do more. There are certainly schemes that form part of university access agreements to persuade more boys to go to university. That is no criticism of universities, which need more boys to achieve the grades to be able to go, stay and not drop out. I believe, as do many others such as Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, that we need more male teachers in schools at every level. Fewer than one in six primary school teachers are male, with fewer than two in five at secondary level. That ratio is not improving on an equality level. That cannot go on, and I am confident it is one of the main causes of boys being behind their female classmates.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

I will continue where I left off. We also need schools to rethink everything they do to ensure that it is boy-friendly and not just girl-friendly.

The third theme is to be positive about masculinity in schools. Boys need outlets for their creativity, energy and natural instincts. They need to know it is okay to be masculine, and that masculinity is the equal of femininity. It is a positive thing to like cars, engines, building sites, getting your hands dirty and playing sport. It is also a positive thing to like dancing, painting, sculpture, acting and writing plays, but we must not shy away, at any level, from celebrating what traditional male or masculine roles are; they are what we as males were born to do. It may also surprise some ladies that some males can multitask. Some of us can cook, wash, sew and manipulate a Dyson without instruction and make a damn good job of it.

I will give way to the hon. Lady, who might have some personal experience of my skills with a Dyson.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not going to pick up on those particular points. Those in the room expressed their views on that for themselves. Given what the hon. Gentleman said about masculinity, what would he say to international research on 1.5 million 15-year-olds, across a range of countries around the globe, which shows that girls do better than boys even in those countries where girls’ rights are severely limited and gender equality is appalling, such as Qatar and Jordan?

Those are some of the points that we will discuss today—and might well do in the future, as the Chairman has indicated—so I thank the hon. Lady for her point.

We also like to compete at Scrabble, cards, Jenga, football, rugby, cricket, hockey and whatever else we might have the opportunity to engage in, and there is nothing wrong with that. I fear the over-feminisation of our education system has, and is, turning boys off education. We need to nurture men and play to their strengths. Boys want to be young men, and young men want to be grown men; that should be seen as a positive. Some say grammar schools could be the answer and they may be for some, but we need all schools to be successful.

I just want to put this on the record. In Northern Ireland only 19.7% of young Protestant boys actually achieve five or more GCSEs. That is an indication of the many per cent who do not achieve that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need for vocational courses with on-the-job training, and that they must be available at all large schools to enable those who do not have the academic ability to forge ahead vocationally?

I thank the hon. Gentleman from Northern Ireland, who never fails to make a good point in debates in Westminster Hall.

Bringing back secondary moderns for those who do not go to grammar schools and ensuring they attain the same results would cost a fortune, and may not be attainable in the short, or long, run. So any moves on this policy need to be well thought out. No one, whatever their gender or background, deserves to be left behind.

If I am anything, I am someone who believes in striving for a utopian, completely level playing field in life’s chances; but I am a realist and I know that such a dream can never be. I will do my best to ensure that our young people realise that, as my maternal grandma said to me and my younger brothers on more than one occasion, “No one can ever take your education away from you.” She wanted us to work hard at school and go on to college or university and it is only through the second, and perhaps third, chances that I have been granted, mainly through her sacrifices and those of my grandfather and parents, that I was able to achieve what I have. That is why I am honoured and privileged to stand in this place in front of hon. Members today as one of the 650 Members of Parliament who have been elected to represent their fellow countrywomen and men of all ages and levels of educational attainment.

Additionally, I believe we should also have three-year, five-year or seven-year apprenticeships equivalent to degrees but that are vocational for those who are non-academically minded. Those should of course be available to girls as well as to boys, but we need to think differently; it works in countries like Germany, so why not here? University is not for everyone, and certainly with an increase in participation rates from circa 5% in the early ’80s to 30% in the early ’90s and 47% now, it should not mean it is automatically the primary option for young people. The Labour con of the late 1990s to keep youth unemployment figures low is not a good reason to increase university attendance and participation, although I believe that wanting to win in a global economic race with a well-experienced, well-educated and motivated workforce across the myriad economic sectors is.

I find it odd that although we are all promoting more women to be engineers and scientists, there are no such reciprocal schemes for boys. Given the lack of young men now entering the professions, where are the schemes for young men enticing them to apply themselves and to enter professions where they are now underrepresented, such as teaching, medicine, law, psychology and a raft of other subjects and specialisms?

My final theme is about focus and political leadership. There has been precious little attention and focus from the Department for Education, or anyone else in Government and Whitehall for that matter, in terms of recognition, policy and action on this issue. Given that this pattern has emerged and then become embedded for three decades, it is for Governments of all shades, including the last Labour Government, to hang their heads in shame and hold their hands up in acknowledgment that they missed a trick and seek redemption.

I am almost certain that if the genders were reversed this current situation would not exist. Indeed, for more than 20 years copious amounts of taxpayers’ money have been successfully spent on encouraging female applications for STEM subjects and a plethora of degree subjects, college courses and, in more recent years, apprenticeships. That is all to be welcomed, but where has the focus and investment been for boys? I also looked at what focus there was from the Government Equalities Office, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the educational trade unions; little, if anything, was the result of such fruitless searches.

In conclusion, this subject is not going to go away. We cannot wait any longer for more generations of boys to fall behind girls educationally. That is why I believe the Government need to set up an implementation taskforce, as they have on so many other important policy areas. This is exactly such a policy area. The Government have rightly given much focus, policy and leadership on matters such as the lack of women on boards and the gender pay gap. There is an unarguable case that the Government should give the same level of focus, policy and leadership on the gender education gap as they have on those worthy issues that have received much media and BBC coverage in recent politically correct years.

The Department for Education and Ofsted need to step up to the plate and ensure that schools, whether run through local education authorities or as academies and free schools, are boy-friendly. The gender education gap is a very serious matter affecting boys, their families, communities, businesses and our country as a whole. It is a one nation issue, a fairness issue, an equality issue and an issue that has been ignored for far too long. Our boys’ underperformance at school deserves national attention and action. They, their teachers, parents, we as their Members of Parliament, and our nation should expect nothing less.

We have 23 minutes before the wind-ups. Colleagues, look at how many people are standing; try to do three minutes each.

I apologise for being brusque. I would like to challenge the assertion made by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) that educational attainment is about gender: it is about social class and it is about the white working-class social class.

To quote the educational warrior Sir Michael Wilshaw from a speech in 2013 on his report “Unseen children: educational access and achievement 20 years on”:

“Let me emphasise, this is not a gender issue. Poor, low-income White British girls do very badly. So we should stop talking about ‘white working class boys’ as if they are the only challenge.”

Indeed, while boys receiving free school meals are consistently in the lowest-performing overall group at GCSE level, white girls receiving free school meals are consistently the next lowest-achieving group of girls. The attainment gap between children receiving free school meals and those who are not is evident even before a child reaches the age of four. The pattern continues throughout a child’s life. Only 32% of white working-class British students receiving free school meals achieved the GCSE benchmark last year. That is compared with 44% of mixed race students, 59% of Bangladeshi students, 42% of black Caribbean students and 47% of Pakistani students—all receiving free school meals. This is because the educational attainment of white working-class students of both genders has improved much more slowly than that of almost any other ethnic group over the past 10 years.

Optimistically, there is a world of difference between the performance of white working-class students in inadequate and in outstanding schools. What works for all, works even more with working-class students. I will just take the Harris Academies in south London. Last year, about 56% of white British students nationwide secured five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths, but at Harris Academy Greenwich 60% of white British students secured those grades. Just five years ago, the school was under special measures—not now. Under the excellent leadership of a strong principal, George McMillan, the school has undertaken an unimaginable transformation. Harris Academy Falconwood, just a mile away, has a staggering 73% of white British students securing those grades. Yet again, the rate of success at that school is incredible. In 2008 only 17% of its students achieved those grades, but under the leadership of the female principal Terrie Askew, the school is now judged “outstanding” by Ofsted.

In the time allowed, my hon. Friend will probably not be able to go into what is making the difference at those academies, but if she is able to, I would really appreciate it.

It is about doing more of what we know works for everybody else: more extra lessons, more tutorship and more assistance.

The two schools are very different and the gender of the head makes no difference; they are both excellent heads achieving excellent results for the white British, and therefore all other, students. It is about social class, and the sooner we recognise that and stand up and do something about it, the sooner we will make it better for everyone.

One million children have no significant contact with their fathers. Research recently cited by the Department for Work and Pensions says that children with highly involved dads do better at school, have higher self-esteem and are less likely to get in trouble in adolescence. If we say that male role models as teachers are important, how much more so for boys are father role models? Addressing family stability is critical and this is a social justice issue too, because in lower-income families there are far greater levels of family breakdown. We need to address that and to support them.

The Institute for Public Policy Research produced a report entitled “A long division”, which found that only about 20% of variability in pupils’ achievements is attributable to school-level factors. About 80% is attributable to pupil-level factors and particularly family influence. The IPPR says:

“Even if every school in the country was outstanding there would still be a substantial difference in performance”.

We need to help families strengthen, so that we can help these children and boys.

Here are some solutions, very quickly. First, the Government need to appoint a fatherhood champion. Secondly, they need to set up a fatherhood taskforce, perhaps mirroring the taskforce that my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) suggested, to develop a distinctive set of policies aimed at encouraging father engagement. Thirdly, all new fathers should be offered and encouraged to attend parenting classes. At present the majority who attend are from affluent families who say that they learn a little. A minority are from low-income families but when they do attend, they say they learn a lot.

We also know that a disproportionately high number of black boys are excluded from school. Does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a much greater understanding of the barriers and hurdles that these boys have to face, both inside and outside school, such as racism and, as she said, the absence of fathers?

I do. There is much evidence to show that parental involvement and support, even for the most disadvantaged children, can translate into good educational outcomes. Children from poor families where there is a strong commitment to learning achieve better results. For example, 69% of Chinese boys from low-income families gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C compared with just 17% of boys from white working-class backgrounds. Interestingly, the number is very similar for those from black Caribbean backgrounds, where again there is a high level of father absence.

To conclude the solutions, fourthly, every community should have a family hub. As chair of the all-party group on children’s centres, I recently published a report on that issue and I ask the Minister to look at it. I am talking about a place where every family can go to get help, to strengthen their family lives before they perhaps become troubled families or before a marriage begins to disintegrate completely, or to get help with a troubled teenager.

Fifthly, any efforts to regenerate the 100 worst sink estates in the UK should put family and relationship support at the heart of those new developments. Regeneration of the estates needs to go far beyond bricks and mortar if lives are to be transformed, and a healthy relationships fund should be properly resourced to ensure that parenting, couple relationship and family support programmes are included in the master planning processes, not just for this, but for the other Government initiatives such as troubled families, children’s mental health and parenting. They need to include a specific focus on the couple relationship and on strengthening the whole family to ensure that the additional benefits of family stability are reaped by these young boys.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. The educational performance of our children is a topic that deservedly occupies considerable time within not only this House but the other place. It is the most potent policy tool in the hands of Government to raise aspiration and improve social mobility, but today we are here to focus on a very specific aspect of this policy debate: the educational performance of boys. In turn, as a Member who represents a predominantly working-class constituency in the city of Bradford, I propose to narrow even further the focus of this debate to the underperformance of working-class boys within our school system.

Let me make it clear at the start that this is not a call for girls to level down but for boys—indeed, for both working-class boys and working-class girls—to level up. What does the desperate underperformance that is endemic across our country mean for the life chances of our working-class boys? Because of that underperformance, they are most likely to find themselves condemned to temporary, low-skilled and disjointed working lives that offer little career progression or job satisfaction. Perhaps more disturbingly, they will, beyond doubt, find themselves increasingly ill-equipped to compete in today’s dauntingly globalised world, where the rules of international commerce mean that my constituents are no longer competing with Leeds, Manchester or Sheffield, as in the last century, but increasingly with regional cities in Taiwan and Brazil and so on.

As ever, painting such bleak pictures must inevitably beg the question: what are this Government going to do? The answer is certainly not to rob Peter to pay Paul. Funding for other disadvantaged cohorts should and must be maintained. The real answer is to end the first real-terms cut in school funding—a policy of this Government—without delay. It is arguably the single most regressive policy of this Government. That is undeniable. I expect the predictable response from the Government to my call for increased funding will be—excuse me if I paraphrase—something about a “magic money tree”. We have all heard it before, but that is simplistic and little more than a diversionary tactic. There are always choices to be made about competing calls on hard-pressed public finances, and this Government without fail choose time and again to back the wrong side.

As a case in point, under this Government, a choice was made to continue the charitable status of private schools. That tax break at a time of the first real-term cuts in schools funding in over a generation is plainly wrong. It favours the privileged few over the disadvantaged many and prefers the entrenched élite over the undervalued majority. The hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenue to the Exchequer could, if that tax break were ended, be easily and swiftly redirected to tackle the unfairly disadvantaged in our school system and, in particular, to help address the desperate underperformance of working-class boys and working-class girls. Perhaps the Minister in his response will kindly offer the Government’s justification for their continuation of this unjust and damaging tax break.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins).

I would like to bring a different view to this debate. Although we have been talking about cities and inner cities, I represent a shire county, a rural area in west Cheshire. First of all, I declare an interest in that I am a white working-class poor boy. I left school at 16 with no qualifications and I was written off for low-paid employment, exactly as the hon. Lady talked about. I am also a governor of a school in my constituency. I feel passionate about helping poor, working-class people of any gender to succeed in life. I also have two boys and a little girl at state school.

The north-west is underperforming compared with the national average—71% of girls achieved five GCSEs at A* to C compared with 59% of boys. That is a gender gap of 12%. In my constituency, it is even worse—it is 15%. The total university applications from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are an equivalent number to the gender gap, so this is a massive issue for those of us in England.

White working-class boys are far less likely to go to university than any other group in the country and I say to the Minister that “coasting” schools in shire counties such as Cheshire have been an absolute scandal over many years. Some progress has been made by previous Governments—Labour Governments—in inner cities, certainly in London, but those of us representing shire counties in the north of England, for example, have been badly let down.

I am keen to allow other people to speak so I just ask the Minister to look at “coasting” local authority schools and schools generally in the northern shire counties to see what can be done to make sure that working-class boys, currently and in future, get the best opportunities available to them in a new globalised economy.

I just want to make a few quick points. I think it is well accepted that working-class children generally do less well in school, in university and later in professions. We have recently learned that boys are performing worse than girls, especially at a young age, which is concerning. It is a well-known fact that if someone’s linguistic skills are good, and if they have started learning those skills from a young age, they will inevitably perform far better at school and go on to university or an apprenticeship and get a good job.

My constituency is very much white working-class. I have particular concerns because only 71% of children under the age of five in my constituency achieve the expected standard of speech and language skills, which is well below the national average of 80%. There is also evidence of a significant gap between boys and girls. In fact, only 65% of boys are achieving the expected level, as opposed to 78% of young girls. That is a major gap, so it is right that we are debating the need to address the concerns about young boys. In Bolton, 290 five-year-old boys were already behind when they started school recently. If they had performed as well as the girls, 109 more would have met the expected standard.

We need to address the problem. I think everybody understands it and is aware of the issues, but what is the way forward? How do we address the inadequacies and problems? One way is to have more intervention in the early years. I am not trying to make a party political point, but Sure Start centres are a great way of helping a lot of young children from working-class backgrounds to get their linguistic skills up and perform better in school. We should have specialist early learning teachers in nurseries to impart skills and help young children. We also need to spend money on working with families to help them to educate their children within the home.

Some of the social issues that accompany this topic are important, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) about the importance of parents in preventing problems. I reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, as I entirely agree with her. In some respects, she could quite easily have been talking about some parts of my constituency.

I ask the Government for extra funding targeted at junior schools, primary schools, nurseries, and the families and parents of young people who have difficulties and issues. If we identify and target all aspects of the issue, young boys and girls should be able to do well and achieve their full potential.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) for raising this extremely important issue. It does exist, and we should not deny that. Many of us here represent white working-class areas, which adds the dimension that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned, but I do not want to dilute my hon. Friend’s strong message. We know that whatever measure we use, boys from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups perform less well at school.

In Telford, only 28% of white boys on free school meals achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C, whereas girls from similar backgrounds perform significantly better. Naturally, the boys who do not achieve that do not go on to higher education. The attainment gap starts early, and as they go through their lives without the tools they need to achieve their potential, the gap widens. As opportunities and options close down to them, the impact is felt in all areas of their life. More boys than girls experience behavioural difficulties, are excluded from school and are admitted to pupil referral units.

Many boys start to see themselves with a bad-boy image, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is so much that goes with that, including anger, frustration and self-harm, and then the life chances are set in stone. A downward spiral and a domino effect begins.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a physical dimension to the issue? Research from the University of California suggests that boys take longer to get going in the morning. They tend to need to sleep in later in the mornings and then work later into the evenings, and that may have implications, for example, for the timing of the school day.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which I completely understand because I have a teenage boy.

The same “lost boys” to whom the excellent Save the Children report refers then become lost young men in the criminal justice system—in the prison population, or joining gangs or committing knife crime—and it is harder and harder for them to get back on track and turn their lives around. Although it may be uncomfortable, we need to shine a light on the causes of that. All too often, it is a cycle of underachievement. The men in those boys’ lives may have had a bad experience of school, which they have then passed on to their children.

There is a culture of low aspiration and a pattern of cultural isolation, and young people find it difficult to break out of the world into which they are born or to see the limits beyond the horizons that have been set for them. While we in this place may get distracted by focusing on alternative school structures, curriculum content and mandatory personal, social, health and economic education, we must not forget those boys in Telford, those boys on free school meals or those boys in care.

At the core of what the Government must do is continuing to drive up standards in every school, creating opportunities for every child so that no one is left behind. In calling for the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln has taken the opportunity to make that point loud and clear. On behalf of the boys in my constituency who are struggling to achieve their potential, I thank him.

I will call Patricia Gibson to speak for two and a half or three minutes, and then Flick Drummond. If the Front-Bench spokespeople lose a couple of minutes, I hope they can live with that.

Unlike the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), to whom I express my thanks for securing the debate, I do not believe that this is a one nation issue. It is a global issue, and we need to broaden the debate so that we can learn lessons from countries as far away as necessary.

From 2000 to 2010, psychologists at the universities of Glasgow and Missouri looked at the educational achievements of 1.5 million 15-year-olds from around the world using the programme for international student assessment. They found that girls do better at school even in countries where women’s liberties are severely restricted. Girls outperform boys in maths and reading in 70% of countries, regardless of gender equality. Even in countries such as Qatar, which is infamous for its lack of gender awareness, the girls still outstrip the boys in educational performance.

There were only three regions in the world where boys outperformed girls. Bizarrely, those places were Colombia, Costa Rica and the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. We should look at those places and see what they are doing that we are not. The better performance of girls than boys happens regardless of high or low levels of social, political and economic inequality, and there is no significant difference between performance in the United Kingdom and the United States. We need to look at such things if we want to address the issue seriously.

In Scotland, we have taken steps to try to address the issue, but clearly the causes are fundamental and deep-rooted. We need to address it on an international basis and learn from one another. No child should be held back by their background or gender. We need a serious debate about what is going on globally, and we need to tackle the issue with a more holistic approach than just looking at counties and constituencies. It is far more deep-rooted than that.

Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Walker. I will be as fast as I can. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) for securing this important debate.

It is disappointing that the gender gap starts before children go to school and goes all the way through to university. In 2014-15, 56% of all British students were female, which represents a major reversal over the past three decades and corrects centuries of male domination. I am not saying that female domination is a bad thing. I do not have a problem with women ruling the world for the next few centuries as men have done in the past, but I think we are prepared to be more equal.

What to do? We need to stop the blame culture in which higher education blames secondary schools and secondary schools blame primary schools, which in turn blame early years and the parents. We need to look at education as a whole, which is why I am so pleased that higher education is back in the Department for Education.

In Portsmouth South, 73% of boys met the standard for language development last year, compared with 87% of girls. Falling behind at the early stage puts children at a disadvantage, so interventions need to be put in place early. Language begins as soon as children are born, and I would like to see every pram and pushchair designed with the child facing the parent so that they can be talked to. Good childcare is crucial and needs to be well funded. Get it right at that stage and money will be saved in the future.

Boys and girls have the capacity to learn exactly the same subjects. There should be no difference in what girls and boys learn, but there is a difference in how they learn. According to the OECD report, boys are 8% more likely to regard school as a waste of time. Boys learn in short phases and need more breaks. They need to be able to move around more than girls. Thirty-five minutes has been identified as the best length of lesson for boys, so they need short, specific, focused activities. More sport is needed in schools.

Some very good schools have embraced pedagogy with a range of teaching approaches. Using different intervention strategies is proving effective, and good practice needs to be widespread. Each teacher will have a different style, and I am glad that the Government are encouraging teachers to develop their own style rather than forcing them to teach in a particular way. Literacy strategies should include a holistic approach to reading, writing, speaking and listening as an integrated whole. Children also need to be competitive. Target setting and mentoring are crucial. The Portsmouth education business partnership is proving incredibly effective in working with pupils one to one.

Lastly, children need to be challenged and praised. Many boys appear to be full of confidence but are not. Bad behaviour is often a cover for a fear of failure. Good teachers will adjust their attitude to encourage boys to get more involved in activities. I think this is a temporary blip, but we need to work hard quickly to ensure that no boy is left behind.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for his selflessness. Everyone in Westminster Hall owes him a great debt of gratitude. I ask the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople to be brief and to leave the Minister nine minutes at the end.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) on securing this important debate. I do not intend to mention every Member who has spoken, but I will mention a few of the good ideas that have come out of this debate. I will do so as quickly as possible to give the Minister plenty of time to respond.

The hon. Member for Lincoln was right when he listed why boys’ attainment is less than that of girls, but he should temper what he is saying. It almost came out as boys versus girls, which should never be the case. As other Members have said, we should be encouraging attainment for all in schools. We need to move this forward.

I specifically commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for her international outlook. I was astonished to hear some of her statistics and research, because there is not only a problem in the UK, in England and Wales or just in Scotland; there is a problem across the world. All education systems should look at what is happening elsewhere to seek improvement and to raise attainment.

I have a focus in this debate because I was the first woman in my family to go to university. I went to university in 1967, when young working-class women just did not do that. I was fortunate. [Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

As I said, I was the first in my family to go to university, and I was a white working-class girl. Things have changed, but we should not be considering this a gender-specific issue; as has been said, it is a social justice issue. It affects the whole economy and all of us.

I urge the Minister to consider some of the systems used by the Scottish Government, including a very good one called “Getting it right for every child”, which starts with early intervention and goes all the way through. That is where this debate should lead us. We should be considering how to improve children’s education and life chances, because that is what we all want. We all want everyone to be educated, in the true sense: that is, we want what they have inside to be drawn out and used to the advantage of us all.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I will try to be brief. I thank the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) for securing this debate on such an important topic. I will resist going where I was tempted to go with some of the comments that he made. As a white working-class girl, I would not want to stamp down a white working-class boy; we have to show solidarity.

Equality issues affect those from many backgrounds, but I will focus on what I believe to be the elephant in the room, which many Members have raised—class. Class is much more of a determining factor in this debate than gender, and it affects the issue disproportionately. I agree fully with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). All children have the right to a good-quality free education. All of us in this Chamber can agree on that.

I refer back to the comments made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Although I agree that fatherhood is important to the issue, healthy relationships are also important. That is why the Opposition want the Government to do more to equip young people by offering age-appropriate resilience and relationships education in all schools. Although boys from prosperous backgrounds dominate the very top of the attainment scale, there is growing concern about boys performing poorly overall at school compared with girls. I thank the hon. Member for Lincoln for sharing with us his story about his gran. He and I also have that in common: I had a strong gran who pushed me forward.

Boys are more likely to have the worst results, drop out and leave education unskilled and poorly qualified, as the hon. Gentleman eloquently said. Some 38% of boys eligible for free school meals fall behind in early language and communication. That is nearly double the national average of 20%. In our increasingly unequal society, it is not surprising that class is still such a massive barrier to education attainment. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees—other hon. Members alluded to it—that grammar schools are not the answer to the problem. We need to raise standards across the spectrum of schools.

I was moved by what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said as well. I did not know his back story, but I am pleased that he shared with us his own experiences as a white working-class boy. Like him, I fought tooth and nail to get where I am today, and I had key social levers to help me that have now been, sadly, asset-stripped away by this Government.

Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), spoke at length about the importance of early years, which is absolutely right. I focus in my closing remarks on asking what the Government will do to invest in good early years education, because it is not happening at the moment; the funding is being cut. We know that funding from central Government is important in early-years intervention services, and that the cuts will have a massive impact on boys and girls from working-class backgrounds. What steps will the Government take to raise the aspirations and self-belief of students from poorer backgrounds, particularly boys?

Well, let me get on with it, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) on securing this important debate. It has been an excellent and pacy debate, with excellent speeches on both sides of the Chamber, particularly the passionate speech, based on personal experience, of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), the thoughtful speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Telford (Lucy Allan) and for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), and other speeches that I will refer to in a moment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) have so clearly set out, there are still far too many young people—boys and girls—who are held back by their background and circumstances and who leave school without the basic building blocks for a successful future. The Government are determined to tackle those issues. Tackling educational inequality means raising the bar, setting the highest expectations for all pupils at every stage and raising standards so that every school can deliver a world-class education.

We have already made enormous strides. More than 1.4 million more pupils are now being taught in schools judged good or outstanding by Ofsted than in 2010. Once again, this year’s A-level and GCSE results are testimony to the hard work of thousands of pupils and teachers. But while it is right that we celebrate those achievements, we must also recognise that there are groups of pupils for whom the chances of achieving good GCSEs and A-levels are simply too low.

Tackling the inequality driven by socio-economic background is a key priority for the Government, as is tackling the inequality driven by gender. Whichever way we read the data, they show that girls outperform boys at all educational stages in most areas of the curriculum. In 2015, there was a gap of nearly 16 percentage points between girls and boys judged to be achieving a good level of development at the end of the early years foundation stage: 74.3% for girls and 58.6% for boys. The gap persists at primary school in most, but not all, subjects.

In 2015, while boys’ and girls’ performance in mathematics was consistent—87% of boys and girls achieving level 4 or higher in the key stage 2 maths assessment—a significantly higher percentage of girls than boys achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and grammar, punctuation and spelling. In reading, writing and maths, 83% of all girls achieved at least the expected standard, compared with 77% of boys.

By the time pupils reach the end of key stage 4 at secondary school, the gender gap in attainment has increased. Girls outperform boys across all major curriculum subjects, although the size of the gap varies considerably by subject. For example, in 2015, girls only just outperformed boys in maths and individual sciences, but in English the gap was nearly 15 percentage points, and in the most commonly studied languages—French, German and Spanish—it was around 10 percentage points. Girls remain more likely than boys to be entered for the English baccalaureate: in 2015, more than 43% of girls studied the suite of English baccalaureate qualifying subjects, compared with 34% of boys. More girls than boys achieved it, too: 29% of girls, compared with around 19% of boys.

The cumulative impact of low prior attainment during primary and secondary school is likely to be one of the main factors influencing the slightly lower proportion of boys progressing to a sustained college or sixth form at 16 and the slightly higher likelihood that boys will be not in education, employment or training at the same age. In England, young women are 36% more likely to apply to university than young men; the difference in application rates between them is the highest on record.

It is important to note, however, that gender gaps are a common occurrence internationally, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) pointed out. They are in favour of girls in reading, in favour of boys in mathematics but mixed in science. According to the most recent PISA study—the programme for international student assessment, conducted by the OECD—the reading ability of girls is higher than that of boys in every country.

On average across OECD countries, 15-year-old girls are around a year ahead of boys—38 PISA points. The size of that gap is narrower in England: our girls outperform boys by 24 PISA points. The gender gap in maths is reversed—boys do better—and is not as large: 11 PISA points, or four months of education, across the OECD. In fact, boys only scored significantly better than girls in 27 out of 65 countries, and the gender gap remains in favour of girls in Jordan, Qatar, Thailand, Malaysia and Iceland, as I think the hon. Lady referred to. The size of the gap is similar in England to the average across all OECD countries, which is 13 PISA points.

What are the drivers of boys’ under-achievement? I listened very carefully to the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South. While there is a plethora of data to show where and by how much girls do better than boys in education, there is only limited evidence that explains precisely why boys do not perform as well as girls. There is no shortage of theories, but many of them are not supported by robust research evidence. For example, it has been argued that boys naturally prefer examinations and girls prefer coursework, so boys may have been disadvantaged by the move from exam-based assessments to GCSEs, which place a greater emphasis on coursework. In fact, the attainment of girls at the end of secondary school was already improving before the introduction of GCSEs, and subsequent reductions in the weighting of the coursework component of GCSEs have had little impact on gender attainment patterns.

Another view, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln referred to, is that the performance of boys is held back by the lack of male teachers in schools, particularly during the primary phase. He is right to point out that there is a huge disparity in the numbers of men and women teaching in primary schools, but studies that have looked for correlation between teacher gender and pupil attainment have mostly found no relationship of improved attainment when boys are taught by male teachers—although that does not mean we do not want to address the imbalance in the gender of primary school teachers.

The research evidence does suggest that the behaviour and attitudes of boys and girls towards school and academic study tend to differ in a number of ways—my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South referred to some of those. Pupil-level factors appear to play an important role in the gender attainment gap. We know that there are some schools in which pupil attainment is high and the gap between girls and boys is small or non-existent. Those schools tend to be characterised by a positive attitude to study, high expectations of all pupils, high-quality teaching and classroom management, and close tracking of individual pupils’ achievement.

As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden so passionately and ably pointed out, academies in the Harris Federation in her constituency are improving educational standards for pupils from poorer backgrounds because they adopt those attitudes to education. I have not yet seen evidence of the gap closing, because I do not have the data, but if the hon. Lady has them, or if I can get them from Dan Moynihan, it would be interesting to see the extent to which the Harris Federation’s approach to education is having an impact on the gender gap.

It is important not to generalise. It is simply not true that all boys do badly and that all girls do well. For example, white British girls who are eligible for free school meals generally do much worse than white British boys who are not. Indeed, there is clear evidence that poverty is a much bigger predictor of poor educational attainment than gender, as the shadow Education Secretary pointed out. While gender imposes a relatively consistent educational performance gap across all ethnic groups, the impact is compounded significantly by deprivation. As the Prime Minister noted in her inaugural speech, the chances of going to university are extremely low for white working-class boys. In 2015, fewer than one in four white British boys eligible for free school meals achieved five A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and maths, compared with more than 56% of non-disadvantaged white British boys.

The question is: how are we tackling educational underachievement? The Government’s approach is to set high expectations for what all pupils will achieve by introducing an ambitious and stretching national curriculum and world-class qualifications. To deliver such reforms, we are building a school-led, self-improving education system, characterised by high levels of autonomy and strong accountability arrangements, through which the characteristics of high-performing schools, such as those referred to by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, can be shared and embedded across the whole system.

We want all pupils to secure the basics in literacy and numeracy by the end of primary school, and we have set higher standards in those areas of the curriculum. We have embedded the teaching of phonics in key stage 1, which we know is the most effective way of teaching reading for all children, and we are providing catch-up funding to secondary schools to support those pupils who do not achieve the expected standard at 11. As a result, 120,000 more six-year-olds are on track to become fluent readers. Our introduction of the English baccalaureate sets a strong expectation that all pupils will receive a rigorous academic education that prepares them for adult life and success in our modern economy. We have made clear our aim that, by 2020, the vast majority of pupils, boys and girls alike, will take those facilitating subjects as part of a well-rounded education that opens the door to education and employment.

Our new performance accountability measures are also intended to drive up attainment across the board. Secondary school performance tables now report on pupils’ progress from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school, as well as their GCSE attainment. The new measures, known as progress 8 and attainment 8, will encourage schools to focus their attention on the progress and attainment of every pupil, not just those at or near the borderline of a particular performance threshold.

Looking beyond the curriculum, our commitment to character education seeks to ensure that all pupils develop the essential qualities of resilience, perseverance and self-control, all of which are critical for success in both education and adult life.

In the spirit of this debate, and bearing in mind what is happening in the media, does the Minister believe that grammar schools will help with his aspirations or make things harder?

The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have been clear that we need to build a country that works for everyone. We are looking at a range of options to allow more children to go to a school that helps them to rise as far as their talents will take them. We will, of course, say more in due course, as policy is developed under the new Secretary of State.

Our vision for a self-improving school system is fast becoming a reality. Our growing network of teaching schools and multi-academy trusts is ensuring that institutions can collaborate and receive the support they need to raise standards. We are working hard to create a sustainable and diverse succession plan of high-quality school leaders and headteachers, and our expansion of the highly successful Teach First programme—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).