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Educational Attainment: Boys

Volume 782: debated on Thursday 30 March 2017

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve the educational attainment of boys of all ages at state schools.

My Lords, I remind noble Lords of my education interests in the register, and thank them for taking part in this debate this afternoon.

A retired general known to me was inspecting a school cadet corps, and as he went round, he noticed that, whereas the girls had large numbers of badges on their arms for military pursuits such as shooting, first aid and field-craft, the boys had virtually none. When he addressed the parade he said, “Boys, you must really pull your socks up. You’ve got hardly any badges on your arms”. While he was speaking, a lad in the front row kept putting up his hand, military discipline vying with indignation, and said, “Sir! We’ve got just as many badges as the girls, but the girls won’t sew them on for us!”.

That is a somewhat frivolous introduction to what is actually a very serious subject: boys in our state schools are doing badly compared with girls. I want to pay tribute to the excellent debate on this issue in Westminster Hall last September, secured by my honourable friend Karl MᶜCartney, MP for Lincoln. Many excellent points were made by members across the political spectrum and I shall refer to them from time to time.

There are enough statistics to last the whole afternoon, but here are just a few of them. Last year’s figures show that in state schools girls are 30% more likely to enter university than boys. In Scotland, the figure is 43%. Indeed, the head of UCAS has recently predicted that, if current trends continue, girls born today will be 75% more likely to enter higher education. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a gap of nearly 16% 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. These trends persist: when finishing primary school, some 57% of girls reach the required standards in literacy and numeracy; only 49% of boys do.

When we move to public examinations, last year girls opened up their biggest gap over boys in A to C grades for 14 years—71.3% of female entries were awarded at least a C grade compared with just 62.4% of their male counterparts. Especially in arts subjects, a quarter of girls earn As or A*s, but under 17% of boys do. It is only in mathematics that boys squeak ahead. At university, women are more likely to graduate than their male peers, and typically they get better grades.

Whichever way the data are read, they show that girls outperform boys at all educational stages in most areas of the curriculum. So boys are doing badly compared with girls, with all that that means for society, when surely their attainment ought to be closer to equal. Why is this? No one knows the answer as too little research has been carried out into this important question. Many theories abound and I shall consider some of them.

First, about 15% of teachers in English primary schools are full-time male teachers, and the figure for secondary schools is only 38%. Overall, therefore, three-quarters of all state school teachers are female. This means that the majority of boys, many of whom have no man in the house, never encounter a male role model at home or at school. Please do not get me wrong: I am not knocking our many wonderful women teachers—we obviously could not do without them—but common sense suggests that schools need nearer a 50:50 split, which, by the way, independent schools come closer to.

Does this worrying situation make a difference to boys’ performance? There have been a few studies, based on small samples, which suggest that boys’ attainment is not necessary better when they are taught by male teachers, but in reality no one knows. The decline of boys’ performance has, however, coincided with the drop in the number of male teachers since the 1980s. Could it be that many schools are now not focused enough on supporting boys, understanding what makes them tick and providing a clear disciplinary framework and an environment that does not fail to encourage masculinity? Boys develop more slowly in their teenage years, and many observably have less positive attitudes to schooling. It is very possible that male role models are vital in instilling in them the importance of education.

Whatever the answer, the Government need to address the imbalance of male teachers to female teachers in our schools. Why are men not joining the teaching profession as they used to? Again, there is only anecdotal evidence. Not long ago I talked to a number of newly graduated men at one of our universities. Would they think of teaching as a career? All were emphatic that they would not. Was it the salary? No, they thought that it was fine for someone in their 20s. They unanimously suggested that they could not put up with the disciplinary problems and the chance that there might be unwarranted accusations against them. When I questioned this, they told me that they had been at school only three years before and knew exactly what they were talking about.

It is also perceived wisdom that methods of teaching and examinations have been feminised in the past decades, particularly with the replacement of written examinations with continuous assessment and coursework in many subjects. This is thought to favour girls, who are better capable of the steady, organised work required, whereas boys, it is suggested, do better at putting a towel around their head and revising for all-or-nothing written papers. There has been a trend of late for schools and examining bodies to rely less on coursework and more on end-of-course examinations, but it is too soon to see if this will narrow the gap in performance again, as is suggested.

There is no doubt that the difference in attainment between boys and girls is a complex subject. It is visible across all ethnic groups. The Government have in the past rightly pointed out that most other OECD countries have similar gaps. One would have thought, therefore, that there would be plenty of research in other countries to address this problem, but there is very little of real relevance. Girls are often said to do even better at single-sex schools than at co-educational schools. Do boys do better at boys’ schools than at mixed schools? There seems to be no research available to enable us to take a view. There are some 150 grammar schools in this country, some single sex, some co-educational. Do boys do better in selective education? We cannot tell as there are no useful immediate statistics to help us.

I do not ask the Minister to come up with any answers today to these complicated and vexing questions, but I am sure that we need to hear that the Government will consider a wide-ranging review of the issue. We badly need some high-quality investigative work, and I know that Members on all sides of the House will agree that that research should be free of political correctness and ideology. We need to find out what is putting men off seeking teaching careers so that we can encourage more of them into the profession. We need to know whether the teaching of boys by men really does make a difference to the performance gap. We need to know whether single-sex education is helpful to boys’ attainment or whether there is little difference. We need to know whether boys in selective schools do as well as girls similarly selected. We need to look at comparative studies from other countries—some work has been done in Sweden, the USA and Australia —to see whether there is anything we can learn. Above all, we need to know what can be done for boys without affecting the performance of girls.

Too many boys at present are discouraged by their results and tend to leave education unskilled and poorly qualified for future vocational courses. More young men than young women are not in proper employment or training. Their next steps are too often to be benefits claimants and then, too regularly, they encounter the youth justice system. We need to address these issues, and to do so we badly need far more objective research into them; otherwise, we shall let down further generations of boys with the most serious consequences for our society.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for raising this question. It is a perennial problem facing our education system. Across all parties and groups there is a wish to solve it but so far there is not a lot of evidence that any of us have succeeded. The more we can focus on it, the better. I am grateful for the opportunity today to contribute.

I used to be an optimist about this. The noble Lord mentioned that boys’ attainment fell away in the 1980s. I remember that period well: it was when I was a secondary school teacher. I think what happened is that girls’ attainment improved while boys’ attainment stood still and that is when the gap started. In a strange way, I have always taken comfort from that fact. When I was Education Minister, we saw the performance of children from ethnic groups improve so that it overtook white children, who got left behind. I had seen that as optimistic, thinking that if we could do it for girls and ethnic groups we could do it for those boys, too. Until fairly recently, I thought that was probably the approach we ought to adopt, with focused targets on boys to try and replicate what happened in raising the attainment of other underachieving groups.

I have begun to change my mind on that, partly because we have a much stronger schools system than we had. We have better school leaders and better-quality teachers, yet we have not made that difference. It has not worked. Sitting around just saying, “Focus on boys and have another load of initiatives”, with £1 million spent here and there will not work. I am much more persuaded now—it is a more complex argument and a greater challenge to achieve—that the whole of the gender difference is wound up in the income difference. I take the phrase from the Social Mobility Commission, which says:

“The income gap is larger than either the ethnicity gap or the gender gap”.

I thought we could overcome that by focusing on boys but do not believe so any longer. The way we must go now to close the gap between girls and boys is to take on that big issue of the income gap. If we do that, we will raise standards everywhere and boys will rise with that.

I do not say that there is no issue with boys. This debate is about underachievement of boys in the state system but there is also underachievement of boys in the independent sector—I am not sure why they have been squeezed out of this debate—and from wealthy backgrounds. However, when you look at the nub of the problem, the hard edge is among poor boys. Whatever we do for poor boys would help other underachieving boys as well.

We could get drowned in statistics—I entirely agree with that—but I offer this set of statistics because they support my argument. Girls who do not get free school meals, so more affluent girls above the measure of poverty, are 107% more likely to gain five good GCSEs than free-school-meal girls. Boys who do not get free school meals are 135% more likely to gain five good GCSEs. So there is an issue about boys and girls. If you look at the difference between free-school-meal boys and girls, it is only 33%. If you get even for poverty, the gender gap is 33%. If you plonk poverty back into the measure through free school meals, the gap is 107% for girls and 135% for boys. There must be a message in there that the gender gap is real but it is accentuated and made worse because, at its core, this is about poverty.

We must address the wider educational and inequality arguments and issues that face us. The most interesting set of statistics I found in the Library briefing on this—I could have sat for a week looking at all the statistics; they are fascinating and contradictory, which is one of the problems—is where gender gap by local area was looked at. We know that the largest gender gap is in St Helens, South Tyneside and Darlington. The lowest gender gaps are in Richmond upon Thames, Calderdale and North Somerset. I say no more. It is bound in with poverty. On the next page, one sees something interesting. The most deprived local authority in the country is Tower Hamlets, whose gender gap is 15%. That is too large, but it is only a percentage point away from the second-least deprived local authority in England, which is Rutland. My analysis of that is that Tower Hamlets has overall good standards. There has been good, solid school improvement. It is a high-achieving borough, even though it is an area of high deprivation.

Somewhere in that lies the answer. If you get school improvement right—we now know a lot about this, which we did not know years ago—you close those gaps. You close the poverty gap and you close the gender gap. My marker in trying to address this is that first we have to address poverty. That is not beyond the Minister’s brief, because it is not beyond anybody’s brief. If you address poverty, that will solve the gender gap. Secondly—and this is where I share my conclusion with the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield—we need to look at the barriers that are caused by being poor. This is about high expectations, social capital and, predominantly, early years education and language development. It is about having a space to study and role models. This is a big issue and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss it. We do not have a good track record in tackling it, but I think that we now know enough about school improvement to take us further forward.

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Lingfield for raising this important issue. As he and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, it is a complex subject, to which it is hard to do justice in one hour, so I will focus on the lack of male role models, which is a significant factor in boys’ underachievement. To set this in a broader context, UK studies show that only one-fifth of the variability in pupils’ achievement can be attributed to school quality; the remaining four-fifths is attributable to pupil-level factors. The influence of family background accounts for half of that four-fifths. To put it plainly, 40% of variability in pupils’ achievement has absolutely nothing to do with the school or the neighbourhood.

Here I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. Poverty is an inadequate explanation. Attainment among pupils on free school meals from Bangladeshi, black African and Chinese backgrounds has improved by more than 20% over the last 10 years, while poor white pupils do worst in their GCSEs among all the main ethnic groups and have seen no such uplift. Boys do especially badly: less than a quarter of boys on free school meals achieve five good GCSEs, compared with just under a third of girls.

The right honourable Member for Birkenhead, Frank Field, said:

“Raising the aspirations and results of white working-class boys would do more than anything to cut the supply route to Britain’s burgeoning underclass”.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation research shows that raising aspirations requires working with parents, yet a 2011 Ofsted survey of 37 secondary schools found that none of the schools was focusing specifically on drawing in the families of white British students. One high-attaining inner-city secondary school was working effectively with groups such as black Caribbean boys and Somali girls but had not attempted similar work with its lowest-attaining group: white British students eligible for free school meals. It is a fairly small survey, which highlighted only one otherwise successful school, but it is telling none the less.

Over 3 three million children are growing up in lone-parent households, about a million of whom have no meaningful contact with their fathers. Rates of lone parenthood are far higher among poor white and black groups than among Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi populations. Research clearly shows that family breakdown is a risk factor for educational underattainment. Can the Minister explain how we are supporting families to prevent family breakdown? I draw the attention of noble Lords to my entry in the register of interests in quoting from the Centre for Social Justice’s 2013 report, Requires Improvement. In it, Sir Robin Bosher, director of primary education at the Harris Federation of academies, emphasises that 25 years as a head teacher has taught him that,

“society must not underestimate the impact of family breakdown and the colossal effect a parent leaving home has on children”.

John d’Abbro OBE, who heads the outstanding-rated New Rush Hall School, argues that underlying almost all the exclusions that he sees is the issue of family breakdown. Boys are three times more likely to be excluded than girls, and many of the boys whom d’Abbro sees excluded grew up without fathers. A lack of discipline at home means that boys will test boundaries to the limit and beyond at school. US and UK research shows that, even if he is not spending a lot of time doing things with his son, a father’s presence is still a protective factor. We should not underestimate how hard it is for even the most dedicated single mothers to compensate for the psychological impact of a boy’s father not being there to encourage him, pull him up when necessary and show him love and care. The father gives a boy more reason to try harder, push himself and overcome: all vital for doing well at school, as is a father’s modelling of being able to provide for one’s family by linking effort and reward.

There are micro-communities in our country where three-quarters of households with children have no father living in the house. Male teachers are, therefore, even more vital in these local schools, as was highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield. In 2012, however, one in four English primary schools had no full-time qualified male teacher and 80% of state-educated boys were in primary schools with three or fewer full-time qualified male teachers. In one low-income area—Lewisham, in London, which has well over twice the national average of lone-parent families—one-third of primary schools had no qualified full-time male teachers. Can the Minister update us on the number of male teachers today and tell us what is being done to increase their prevalence, especially where lone-parenthood rates are high?

Keeping fathers involved, even if they are separate from mothers, is vital. We have to start early: the last Labour Government passed legislation to ensure that all fathers’ names are on birth certificates in all but the most exceptional circumstances. This part of the Welfare Reform Act 2009 should be brought into force. Will the Minister inform us what is currently being done to improve the rates of active fatherhood?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, who—as we established in a debate here a couple of years ago—is a very distant kinsman of mine. I congratulate him on bringing this debate forward and on the way he did it. It is quite clear that this is a complicated problem and that a cocktail mix has led to this result: there is not just one answer. The more we look at it in that way, the closer we will get to finding some form of solution or a series of solutions to apply to this situation.

I am dyslexic, I am president of the British Dyslexic Association and I have other educational interests. I was first dragged towards this by something that I was told as a youth, which was that dyslexia is four times more common among males than among females. That would fit quite nicely into this debate, apart from the fact that all the work now says that it is not true. Most of the work that has been done states that it is as common. A study by Olson and DeFries at the University of Colorado looked at 400 pairs of twins and discovered that there was absolutely no variation.

A myth has been put to one side, so why do we start to have this change? It is quite clear from all the statistics that boys are being outperformed by girls. It is quite clear that there are variations through the social structure and income levels, so what is happening here? It is clearly some mix between the two. It was put to me that boys tend to have—whenever you make a statement here, there is always a general twist—better spatial awareness and spatial memory. The female of the species tends to be better at naming and locating types of memory. Different types of memory will work differently at acquiring reading.

My background in dyslexia tells me that when you have problems acquiring reading you have problems with the way we work within our school system. When we talk about reading and attainment in the school system, we are talking not about intelligence but about how we apply it. How do we get through that and make it work?

It is also clear that if you come from a background where you are expected to read, you will do it. The average male may not do it quite as naturally as the average female, but he will do it. A cocktail of events has clearly led to where we are now.

Some say that the problem comes from not having a father figure. I come from a broken home and I got to university, as did my brother. Indeed, the late Earl Russell, of great memory, used to point out that he came from a broken home. The fact that his father was Bertrand Russell may have altered the effect on him. There is not one single bullet here, there is not something that excludes you. However, it is clear that when schools have worked on bringing fathers into the system and said, “You will get involved, it is part of your role”, that helps.

Having more male teachers helps a little, but if the male teacher is not a figure who inspires you but is one who you try to avoid because he tries to give you work and makes your life difficult, that may make the situation slightly worse. We do not know how this works. That is the important thing, but we have to start addressing this, because the world of work, and access to it, is becoming increasingly tied into the idea of acquiring the ability to read to get through the education system.

Furthermore, and in contradiction to the way this debate was introduced, will the Minister say what, if any, work has been done on improving the identification of special educational needs within the classroom? Another problem is probably masked in these figures: the underdiagnosis of females with special educational needs. This underdiagnosis is very high, because males in the classroom tend to be more extrovert, their problems are seen and they are more trouble, while the female hides in the middle of the classroom. Those are both normal classroom survival techniques for those having problems. We are missing many of them: can we look at that? The problem may actually be bigger than these facts suggest if we take that into account. What are we doing to find the true facts, so that we can start to look at solutions?

The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, has started—or rather, given impetus to—an important discussion here. It is incredibly important to identify what is going on: if we do not, we will underutilise our population and make the lives of the group that misses out slightly worse. Surely we should spend a little more time and energy on identifying the problem.

My Lords, this is an important debate, especially now that we have entered into the last few years of our membership of the EU. Creating an excellent education for all—academic or technical—is key to keeping Britain competitive in days to come. Our human capital is one of the greatest assets that commerce can nurture and safeguard, and the current situation for boys is simply not good enough. I am glad of the widespread realisation that the demise of technical education was an error. My tireless noble friend Lord Baker and his university technical colleges have gone some way towards stemming that decline, on which I congratulate him.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for his work in ensuring that many more schools can have greater autonomy. I have always advocated the devolution of spending when it is reasonable to think that funds can be spent more effectively. On average, poor boys start school with a basic literacy level 15 points behind their female counterparts. The gap narrows to 10 points for wealthier households. This figure represents a significant and unnecessary loss of talent. This deficit can dog young men for the rest of their educational careers and have obvious negative impacts on their real careers and prospects.

The solution is not targeted support for boys but a better scheme to bring good educational reforms to parts of the country that have been left behind. Teach First has been an excellent initiative, and bringing more young and highly motivated people into the workforce to become positive role models and great teachers is an excellent idea.

The real change will come from a fairer school funding formula. It is time for funding to shift away from schools with high results and falling percentages of pupils on free school meals. It should move to schools in serious decline and need. London has been a real success story, and higher funding has undoubtedly helped, but London’s schools are now on the whole some of the best performing in the country, while free school meals have dropped by some 10 points. Support has worked, but some schools must be gradually moved off higher funding when there are others that are plainly more deserving. This will be politically painful, as redistribution always is, but it is absolutely necessary to our future.

Real attention must also be shown to former industrial towns, such as Rotherham and Wigan. The former Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central referred to his constituency as a place,

“without a culture of formal education”.

That kind of attitude could be allowed to slide in a town where jobs for life could be found in a local factory, but the decline in manufacturing has been disproportionately hard on young men. There still exists a skills gap, especially in engineering and other technical subjects. The answer is to make technical education an attractive prospect and to remove the stigma attached to it. Primarily, this can come through greater investment in such subjects, across all schools, and not just restricted to specialist schools.

I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lingfield for introducing this important debate and to all noble Lords for allowing me to speak briefly in this gap.

My knowledge of this area comes from five years’ teaching boys and young men basic literacy skills in a young offender institution as part of a voluntary one-to-one teaching scheme. Not many children who leave education without educational attainment, let alone qualifications, will pursue a life leading to a custodial sentence, but it is true that many boys in young offender institutions have little functional literacy or, indeed, numeracy skills. This represents a real cost to society, not to mention untold misery for victims, their families and indeed the boys themselves.

Over five years, I taught a number of boys individually, which is, perhaps, the only way of making real progress in the prison environment. Of course, from my point of view, teaching was made immeasurably easier once issues of crowd control were removed. It was voluntary on both sides. Many had been labelled dyslexic, although I rarely saw any evidence of this and, using synthetic phonics and various online programmes, most made rapid progress. Almost without exception, they wanted to learn—but privately, away from mocking eyes of some of their peers, as though learning were something shameful. Almost universally, their lack of attainment in mainstream school could be attributed to truancy from an early age together with a lack of discipline at home. It is true that many admitted—almost all, in my experience—to having no resident father, and the person to whom the boys afforded the most respect was their nan or grandmother.

We should ponder not only why boys underperform girls but how to encourage boys at the earliest stage in their education that learning is useful, fun and will afford skills that will enable them to lead more fulfilling lives than they would do otherwise. Surely, the most significant factor in that would be the quality of teaching staff and the teaching staff’s training. I know that noble Lords will agree that the quality of teachers and their training has been improved through initiatives such as Teach First.

Even more can be achieved for boys in other ways, perhaps through engagement with sport and the valuable lesson that it gives beyond the skills of the game. I am also aware of various mentoring schemes in London boroughs for boys who lack encouragement at home. Some of these younger mentors have provided valuable role models. One of the most humbling lessons that I learnt in my time behind their bars was how much these supposedly tough young men valued someone—anyone—taking time with them individually, teaching them a skill that they were ashamed not to have mastered already and then showing a real, personal and non-judgmental interest in their progress.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for initiating this debate and I particularly thank the House of Lords Library, the Sutton Trust and Teach First for sending briefings.

It is clear from all the research carried out that there is a real and continuing problem with the educational attainment of boys at state schools, particularly boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. My noble friend Lord Addington rightly said that there is no one silver bullet that will deal with the problem, but consideration of and action on a series of interventions, policies and practices may help.

Sometimes, we learn from our own experiences. I was head teacher of two primary schools, both in deprived communities. My last school was in Halewood, which was a white working-class community. It was a large primary school of 600 pupils. In a sense, we threw everything at those pupils to get them up to a good level of literacy and numeracy. Thanks to our success, our results in literacy and numeracy were above the national average, and we celebrated that fact, as did the five Ofsted inspections we had while I was there. But it used to always concern me that when my pupils left to go to a whole plethora of secondary schools, their results declined dramatically, and I never understood why.

I was interested in researching for this debate to come across Sutton Trust information which said among the various facts and figures that every year there are high-achieving boys at primary school—pupils scoring in the top 10% nationally in their key stage 2 tests—who five years later receive a set of GCSE results that place them outside the top 25% of pupils. How is that, with all the work carried out at primary level?

I can also tell noble Lords that a third of my staff were male teachers, and two were from ethnic backgrounds.

All that work is carried out at primary school. Two weeks ago I visited a primary school near Preston—I will not name the school—which is in a very deprived community. It is an oasis. It has a children’s centre linked to it and early years provision, all through a school purposely built by the local authority. I was really impressed. Ofsted rated it outstanding. It is an outstanding school in a desperately deprived community. I said to the head, “What happens to the pupils?”, and he reiterated what I just said: “Actually, sadly, they do not do as well in secondary education”.

So what is going on? I do not know the answer. I hear the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talk about poverty; I hear people talk about the importance of the home—of course, the home and poverty are important; of course, having role models is important. But we cannot sit around and wait for those things to happen; we have to do something now. There is no time to wait around for role models to become available if families are to get immediately out of the poverty trap. We need a plan of action to make sure that we succeed.

Early years provision is of course vital. It should not be about a national childminding service; there need to be trained staff who create stimulating, challenging learning environments and know the importance of learning through play. It is important that we develop those policies and strategies. Here is my starter for 10—I am suddenly conscious that I was rambling at the beginning and lost time. We need to use high-quality information about pupils’ current capabilities to select the best steps for their education and teaching. We need to use high-quality structured interventions to help pupils who are struggling with literacy. We need more highly qualified teachers—I do not think this has been mentioned—to teach in deprived schools. I am again indebted to the Sutton Trust research, which has shown that teachers in advantaged schools are more experienced than those in deprived schools. We should perhaps have our most experienced teachers in deprived schools. The research found that financial incentives and more time for lesson preparation would attract those experienced teachers to teach in deprived schools.

Let us implement targeted attainment improvement programmes. Let us continue to look at using the pupil premium. We must make better use of teaching assistants, who are a valuable resource to primary and secondary schools, and adopt evidence-based interventions to support teaching assistants in their small-group and one-to-one sessions. We need peer tutoring, one-to-one tuition, collaborative learning and effective setting of homework. I am sure that if we have a plan of action, we can turn things round.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, has done us all a favour in opening up this important matter for debate. I listened to him with interest. His concluding remark that we need more objective research on this matter is true. There is a plethora of research and all noble Lords have been given a considerable amount of backing material for this debate, but there are still areas that would benefit from further research.

The debate highlights a real and entrenched sociological conundrum: why do girls consistently outperform boys in educational achievement? I might in passing ask why men nevertheless overtake women in the workplace in both levels of pay and getting the top jobs, but that is a debate for another day.

Boys in England are nearly twice as likely as girls to fall behind in early language and communication. Despite a dramatic improvement in overall results over a period of more than 10 years, the gender gap has hardly changed for five year-olds. Research by Save the Children, which noble Lords will have seen, shows that while there has been a 20% improvement in overall attainment in state schools and an 8% reduction in the poverty gap since 2006, there has been a reduction of just 1% in the gender gap in educational attainment. As recently as 2015, boys accounted for 51% of children who started primary school in the state sector but for 66% of those who were behind in their early language and communication. The pattern is the same across all ethnic groupings.

I am not sure whether the announcement earlier today that the Government are about to end SATs tests for seven year-olds has relevance to this debate, but at key stage 2—that is, 11 year-olds—girls who are eligible for free school meals outperform boys eligible for free school meals by a greater margin than those not eligible for free school meals. I agree with the point made by my noble friend Lady Morris about poverty being a determinate factor—that is undoubtedly the case—and it was interesting that noble Lords each identified a different subject. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, talked of the lack of role models.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, said there is no one answer, and of course that is right. A number of aspects contribute to this. There is no obvious reason for the general disparity between boys and girls, but a recent study by the University of Bristol showed how big an impact the gender gap in the early years foundation stage has on boys’ primary school attainment. That is not a silver bullet, but it is the area I want to concentrate on. Two-thirds of the total gender gap in reading at key stage 2 can be attributed to the fact that boys begin school with poorer language and attention skills than girls.

That is just one piece of research, but the evidence from a wide range of studies over recent years clearly points to high-quality early childhood education and care provision being the most powerful protection against the risk of falling behind, especially for boys. This is, of course, the case in respect of all children, but especially so with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government say they want to improve social mobility. I do not doubt their good intentions, particularly as regards apprenticeships, but I have regularly criticised their recently discovered priority of grammar expansion, for which they have managed to find pots of money at a time when comprehensive schools are in a real funding crisis. There is no evidence to show that grammar schools have a positive impact on social mobility. If social mobility is to become a reality, the resources made available to it must be targeted first, second and third at early years provision because that is where it really can have a meaningful and lasting effect.

Yet since 2010 more than 400 of the Sure Start centres championed by the Labour Government have closed. In July 2015, the then Childcare Minister announced that the Government would be launching an open consultation on children’s centres that autumn. It never happened. Does the Department for Education still intend to proceed with that consultation? It is not only overdue but very necessary.

The Government really need to grasp the fact that they must invest in the best early education and childcare provision, particularly in the most deprived areas, led by graduates and supported by skilled staff at all levels. That would be showing a commitment to children who are falling behind by providing them with the chance they deserve of a fulfilling—in all definitions of that word—early years experience, one that supports their development and increases their chances of a full and successful adult life.

A well-qualified early years workforce is vital if young children are to have the support they need to thrive and enjoy success in school and then in later life. The entire workforce is important. Better-qualified early years practitioners deliver higher-quality care, which means better outcomes for children. The Government need to recognise the importance of continual investment in improved professional development for those working in early years, in their status and in the progression routes for staff at all levels. There is also a need to take steps to increase the number of 0-5 early years teachers and those with equivalent graduate qualifications in the workforce. Evidence shows they deliver significant improvements across all aspects of provision and are linked to better Ofsted ratings and higher-quality early years teaching. Studies show that the difference in the quality of provision between nurseries in the most and least deprived areas is almost completely wiped out if a graduate is present, yet the 2015 early years census found that less than half of private, voluntary and independent early years providers that offered free childcare had staff with EYT status working with three and four year-olds. That is not a loophole. It is a gaping hole, and urgent action must be taken to begin to fill it.

I shall finish with a quote from the Save the Children report that I mentioned earlier,

“we cannot wait for disadvantaged children and boys to get to school before they receive the support they need, by which time they may already have fallen behind”,

with negative consequences for their childhoods, school attainment and life chances. We must invest in the best early years provision, led by early years teachers and supported by skilled staff at all levels, particularly in the most deprived areas. Minister, please take note.

My Lords, this has been a short but fascinating debate, and I thank my noble friend Lord Lingfield for raising this important and complex issue. I shall start by setting out what we know about the issues affecting boys’ performance at school and describing the measures that we are putting in place to address many of the problems.

We have known for decades that boys develop at a different rate from girls and that there are certain areas of the curriculum, such as English, in which girls tend to outperform boys, but it is only in recent years that a pervasive gender attainment gap has begun to open up in state schools in England, with girls now outperforming boys at all educational stages and in most curriculum subjects. The gap opens early and persists—indeed widens—through school. Let me give some statistics. Last year, 75.4% of five year-old girls achieved the expected levels for all the early learning goals, compared with 59.7% of boys. As my noble friend Lord Lingfield said, at the end of primary school, 50% of boys—I think that he said 49%—and 57% of girls achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. By the end of secondary school, girls outperformed boys across all the GCSE headline measures. I could give more statistics that confirm this pattern.

As a result, it is not surprising that boys are less likely to go on to further study at 16 or to apply to university, but let us look at the reasons why. What is clear is that the early years are critical. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, raised the issue of research, which highlights stark differences in early cognitive and social development. Girls start school with more advanced social and behavioural skills and, for example, more well-developed language and attention skills, which have been shown to account for two-thirds of the gender gap in reading observed at age 11. While girls outperform boys across all major ethnic groups, there is considerable variation. Boys from particular ethnic backgrounds, including Chinese and Indian, do much better than others, notably white British and black Caribbean boys.

As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, boys are much more likely than girls to be identified as having special educational needs, although he also said that the underdiagnosis of SEN among girls may also be an issue. There is a much higher incidence among boys of social, emotional and mental health needs, speech, language and communications needs and autistic spectrum disorder. Boys are much more likely than girls to be temporarily or permanently excluded from school, yet it is not clear from research evidence whether negative behaviour in school is a cause of poorer academic attainment or one of its consequences. Similarly, there is a lack of good research into how educational outcomes are affected by family structures and, in particular, the absence of a male role model. One recent study found that families with single mothers are associated with greater gender gaps in children’s non-cognitive skills, but it did not look at academic attainment.

My noble friend Lord Farmer asked what was being done to improve the rates of active fatherhood and how we are supporting families to prevent family breakdown. There can be no doubt that parental conflict causes heartache and damages children’s upbringing, potentially harming their opportunities well into the future. We now understand more about the mechanism through which children’s outcomes are affected by parental conflict and that it impacts directly on children’s well-being, as well as getting in the way of good parenting. We must make reducing conflict between parents our priority, regardless of whether they are together or separated. That means making support to reduce parental conflict a part of local provision. To achieve that, we will continue to work with local authorities to help them to embed this work into local services.

We understand the importance of both mothers and fathers to children’s future outcomes, regardless of whether couples are together or separated, but we often hear that services are less likely to identify men as parents and to consider them as having responsibilities to their children. We are ensuring that both mothers and fathers are supported through our parental conflict work and will look at whether more can be done to ensure that services recognise fathers and help them to play a full and active role in their children’s lives.

International studies suggest that boys and girls differ in their behaviour and attitudes towards school and academic study. Girls are more likely to use self-regulation strategies, to do their homework and to respond to school work more positively. Noble Lords may agree that this is a rather obvious conclusion. However, the impact of school factors on the gender attainment gap is not obvious. There is some research that shows no conclusive link between the size of the gap and overall school performance. However, we know that schools with little or no gap have a positive attitude to study, high expectations of all pupils, excellent teaching and classroom management and rigorous tracking of individual pupils’ achievement.

Some common assumptions about boys’ underperformance in school are not supported by evidence. For example, there is no evidence that the emphasis on coursework at GCSE, which has been thought to be a factor favouring girls, has adversely affected boys. Similarly, some people have suggested that boys are held back by a lack of male teachers, particularly in primary schools, but there is no conclusive evidence to back this up.

My noble friend Lord Farmer asked what was being done to increase the number of male teachers, especially in certain hot spots where there might be more of a plethora of lone parents. Current data show that in 2015 there were more than 119,000 male teachers, full-time equivalent, compared to 115,000 in 2011. Men comprise 26% of teachers in state-funded schools in England, a proportion that has remained broadly stable over time. We are aware of concerns around the number of male teachers in our classrooms and we want all schools to be able to recruit high-quality teachers, regardless of their gender, since evidence shows that quality of teaching is the single most important factor in determining how well pupils achieve. Research has not found that the gender of teachers has a differential effect on boys and girls, but we will continue to monitor the composition of the teaching workforce by gender and will consider what if any steps would be appropriate to increase the number of men entering the profession.

Having set out the scale and nature of boys’ underperformance and briefly described its causes, I now turn to how the Government are tackling this issue. We are committed to tackling educational underachievement wherever it exists, not by targeting specific pupil groups but by setting high expectations for all pupils and building a self-improving school system offering world-class education to every pupil. I begin with the early years—which are so important, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said. Every three year-old and four year-old is entitled to 15 hours per week of free early education. Numbers of qualified staff and graduates in the early years workforce are rising, and we have introduced early years teachers, who must meet the same entry qualification requirements as teachers of older children. At primary school, we have introduced a stretching national curriculum with higher standards in English and maths so that all pupils secure the basics in literacy and numeracy by age 11. At secondary school, through the English baccalaureate, we have set a strong expectation that all pupils will receive a rigorous academic education that prepares them for further study and employment.

Beyond the core curriculum, we want to ensure that all pupils can develop essential life skills—qualities such as resilience, perseverance and self-control. We actively encourage schools to develop these qualities in their pupils through activities such as team sports, volunteering, arts, drama and cadet training. I am minded of the anecdote that my noble friend Lord Lingfield mentioned at the beginning of his speech.

Our vision for a self-improving schools system is fast becoming a reality. The growing network of teaching schools and multi-academy trusts ensures that schools can collaborate and be supported to raise standards. We are working hard to create a sustainable pipeline of high-quality head teachers and school leaders, and have put in place reforms to improve teaching quality at all levels. My noble friend Lady Bloomfield highlighted the importance of good teachers and Teach First. I also acknowledge the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about the need for more experienced teachers in deprived schools. He is, of course, quite right.

However, while there are now nearly 1.8 million more pupils in good or outstanding schools than in 2010, there are still a million pupils in schools which are inadequate or require improvement. A good school place remains out of reach for too many, particularly those from less well-off families. The ban in place since 1998 on opening new selective schools makes it harder to create good school places and limits access to the most stretching academic education to those who can afford to move near to existing grammar schools or pay for independent schooling. That is why we propose to scrap the ban on new grammar schools and allow them to open where parents want them, with strict conditions to make sure they improve standards in local schools and beyond. However, recognising that highly academic routes are not for everyone, we are also reforming technical education, offering training for highly skilled occupational areas such as engineering and manufacturing, health, science, construction and digital. We continue to develop the increasingly popular apprenticeships route, with which noble Lords will be familiar, through a strong partnership between government and industry, equipping young people with the skills that employers need to grow.

I am fast running out of time. A very important point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on the link with poverty. If I had more time, I would speak about that. I shall write to her and copy in all noble Lords who took part in the debate, because there is a link and some very important messages there which we are aware of and need and seek to address.

To conclude, as my noble friend Lord Lingfield said so eloquently, this is a complex topic. I think that all noble Lords recognised that there are no quick fixes, yet the far-reaching reforms of education set in train by this Government, covering the early years right through to higher education, are equipping schools with the tools to tackle these entrenched issues. I passionately believe in the transformative power of high-quality education, that that is a right for all children—both boys and girls—and that strong leaders in good schools are in a unique position to make it happen. Above all, and as noble Lords said, there is undoubtedly more work to be done to tackle these issues. The focus of the Secretary of State for Education must be and is on the 1 million boys and girls stuck in underperforming schools and how to ensure that each one is able to reach their potential. Only then can her and the Prime Minister’s unerring focus on improved social mobility truly become a reality.