Stephen Lambert asks why are the region's boys trailing further behind girls at school?

THIRTY years boys did better at school than girls. Now, it’s the boys who are the under-achievers across the North-East according to the report published last month, Growing Up North. In Newcastle in 2016 almost half of white young men failed to achieve five or more good GCSEs including English and maths compared to 40 per cent of young women. The number of BME youngsters from both genders achieving five GCSE’s at A to C (58 per cent) is higher than those who are non-BME.

Alarmingly, male truancy rates in the region are well above the national average. And exclusions rates at secondary schools are at an all time high. In Middlesbrough 4,802 pupils (mostly boys) were excluded from school while in nearby Redcar the figure is 2,594. In County Durham the figure is 2,240 fixed period exclusions.

Ofsted notes it is the white working class in our city, towns and coastal communities who are the cause for concern, with profound implications for their ‘life-chances’. Is this a moral panic or a case of moral realism?

Educationalists are divided as to the reason why young white working class men are doing less well at every stage in the school system whilst young women are doing better than ever. The Children’s Commissioner in Growing Up North puts it down to poverty and poor material circumstances in the home.

There’s some evidence that teachers are not as strict with boys. They are more likely to extend deadlines for written work, to have lower expectations of boys, and tend to be more tolerant of low level anti-social behaviour in the classroom. Young men are more disruptive than young women. Four of five permanent exclusions are boys.

There appears to be a growing “lad”, anti-school culture among some working class boys in several of our urban schools. This was noted some years go by Paul Willis in his book Learning to Labour. By 1998 this was rediscovered by former Tyneside MP Steve Byers, the schools minister, who said: “We must challenge the laddish, anti-learning culture which has been allowed to develop and should not simply accept with a shrug of the shoulders that boys will be boys.’’

A decade later Becky Francis, a Department for Education advisor, re-affirmed this view that boys achieved more peer group “macho” status by resisting being taught, rejecting the values of the school through bad behaviour like messing about in class.

Increasingly primary school teaching has become feminised with a lack of male role models. Even at secondary level 75 per cent of all teachers are female. Learning for many boys at an early age has become a girly activity and contributes to a negative attitude to schooling.

For sociologist Ken Brown, one key explanation is the sharp decline in traditional male jobs. The region’s coal mines have gone and heavy industries that took on thousands of young men in the 1970s have virtually disappeared. Given these huge changes in the labour market some young men have given up, become NEETS,(not in education, employment or training) lacking motivation and ambition. Working class white men are going through an identity crisis with loss of role, low self-esteem and self-image. Unskilled jobs are declining compounded by automation. Youth male unemployment is high.

Research from government advisor, Michael Barber, reveals that “more boys than girls think they are able, and fewer boys than girls think they are below average’’. Yet GCSE results published last month shows this view to be quite opposite the truth. Barber’s work is fast coming to the conclusion that the gender attainment gap is due to the differing ways in which the sexes behave and spend leisure time. Boys are obsessed with computers and don’t like reading books. Girls are more likely to read, or stand around in groups talking.

The educationalist, Peter Douglas, argues that school is a linguistic experience and most subjects and jobs require good levels of comprehension and writing skills. Unlike girls, boys view it as “sissy”. That’s why young women are being recruited in large numbers to university and service and knowledge based careers.

In last decade or so the educational performance of both genders has increased. Girls outperform boys in most subjects. However, as Christine Skelton notes in Brains before Beauty, to portray all girls as achievers and all boys as under-performers is too simplistic a view. It’s the improvement in performance of girls from more middle-class backgrounds that accounts for the rise in girls’ performance overall.

Middle-class boys from the leafy suburbs continue to do well. Boys and girls from the lower socio-economic groups continue to under-achieve compared to their affluent peers. Yet the fact remains that white working-class young men are the worst performers of all genders and ethnicities in the North-East of England.

Thousands of the lost boys from the region have left school unofficially from 14 onwards. In Newcastle, 15 per cent of 16 to 18 year olds are NEET. It’s virtually impossible to track them down with the abandonment of the careers service. Unless government, educational leaders and business act, we’re in danger of creating a disengaged male white under-class in our post-industrial society.

Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and director, Education4Democracy