Why are boys' educations falling behind

Young women are more likely to go to university than young men and the gap is getting wider. Despite this there has been very little pressure to bring the boat back to a more even keel. The efforts remain focused on improving the prospects for girls - preventing our little boat finding an even footing.

Figures released from UCAS, the university admission service, show a record year for young people heading off to university with a 3% rise in admissions. Break that down by gender and we see that young women are 4% more likely to be heading off to university this year compared to only a 2% increase for young men. As it stands a quarter of 18 year old men have taken a university place in the UK compared to over a third of 18 year old women.

It is quite a dramatic gap which can quickly be traced to the application process. Women are a full 36% more likely to apply for university in the first place. In the most disadvantaged areas the gap stands a massive 57%.

Why such a gap exists is a complicated question. One factor is certainly the rising fees, analysis by the Independent Commission on Fees found that following the fees rise to £9,000 male interest dropped more sharply than female interest. As you might expect the impact is more pronounced in poorer areas. Men seem to find the idea of avoiding debt and earning while they learn more appealing with a ComRes survey quoted in Left Foot Forward finding men were 10% more likely to express an interest in these systems.

One large example of this sort of path is apprenticeships – an opportunity to gain a career, get a qualification and on the job experience all while being paid. Apprenticeships will be the right path for many and the majority of those people are female. Yes, you read that right. Women used to lag behind on the apprenticeship front but have recently taken the lead here too. Between 2010 and 2014 1.1 million women started apprenticeships compared to 972,000 men.

It seems likely that this upsurge in women taking on apprenticeships is partly a successful result from the recent push to get women and girls to think about the possibilities of apprenticeships and to make them more widely available. Campaigns also exist that aim of getting more girls into maths and science and while they haven’t met the same levels of success they might be part of the reason women looking at university as an option.

Boys don’t see a similar widespread push to get them to consider going to university, much less get them into roles traditionally dominated by women like nursing or care. This despite David Willetts saying that white working class boys should be targeted like other underrepresented groups back in 2013, when he was Universities Minster.

There is a message missing here, we don’t tell our boys to be aspirational in the same way we do our girls. This might be some of the reason why boys are less likely to seek out information about university from teachers, experts and the internet and less likely to go to university open days. All of which will help them figure out if university is right for them, which seems a conversation many boys aren’t having.

Not seeking help also fits right into Year of the Male’s ongoing narrative; that men are less likely to seek out help in general as we a taught from a young age that to be a “real man” means being silent and strong, not needing help but being able to deal with whatever comes on our own.

In education this means that we need to make sure that young guys are given all the access to information about their future that they could ever want. That people who can offer them support and advice are introduced to them and that it is made clear that they can ask for help without judgement. If not our little boat may find itself listing to one side deprived of the many opportunities that bright talented young men can offer and, all the while, we will have many more men falling overboard. 

Photo by Kai Schreber originally found on Flickr used under creative commons licence