Learning to level-up? Taking action to supporting working-class boys in education

29th November 2023

Author: Dr Alex Blower, Access and Participation Manager, Arts University Bournemouth, UK


The stark disparity in educational outcomes and progression for young men who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) is one of the most persistent challenges facing the UK education system.

Since 2016 there have been a string of reports by policy bodies such as the Higher Education Policy Institute and the National Educational Opportunities Network which have framed and re-framed the issue as one of significance. However, to date none have resulted in sustained, strategic activity in educational policy and practice to address it. 

We find ourselves confronting the fact that despite years of reports, the rate of progression to higher education for the group is still at a dismal level. Department for Education data from 2021/22 tells us that of all White British males who were eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), just 13% progressed to Higher Education compared to 37% for those who were not. For White and Black Caribbean males this figure was 18% and 34% respectively.

Most recently, the report from an inquiry into boy’s educational underachievement by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Issues Affecting Men and Boys highlighted how the disparity took root early, and accompanied young men throughout their time in education. It also did so in a way which was deeply political in nature and aligned to the ideology of the current Government.     

And therein lies the issue. The contributory elements to the disparity in educational outcomes for working-class boys are complex, messy, and can be difficult to engage in a meaningful, constructive discussion around. It’s easy to appreciate that a figure of 17% of FSM boys achieving a grade 9-5 in GCSE Maths and English in my local region is horrendous. However, when it’s entangled within a web of wider issues surrounding gender-based inequality and the resultant societal ills it can get lost; especially when gendered disparities in educational outcomes are mobilised by agendas seeking to sow controversy and division. 

Whilst it may score political points, it comes at the very real expense of creating a future where our young men can expect to lead happy, secure, and fulfilled lives. Journeys into adulthood where they are less likely to contribute to statistics regarding school exclusion, death by suicide, addiction, homelessness or entry into the criminal justice system, and more likely to be compassionate, empathetic individuals with healthy, loving relationships.

In a landscape full of polarised rhetoric, social media trolls, and deep political division, the prospect of doing nothing can be alluring. It’s a darn sight easier than doing something. Putting your head above the parapet constitutes a risk. Better to wait. For someone to tell us ‘what works’. To hand us a silver bullet so we can tackle the issue quickly, efficiently, and with minimal fuss. 

If that is what we’re waiting for, we’ll be waiting a long time. And while we wait, 8 in 10 boys on Free School Meals in my locality will continue not to achieve a 9-5 in GCSE Maths and English each year. They will be structurally ruled out of future opportunities for study and work. Systemic educational inequalities entrench and reproduce such outcomes across generations.

Moving forward with purpose

Within such difficult terrain, how do we move forward? A first step could be to build a shared understanding around the issue. Whilst messy and complex, it is also inextricably linked to the patriarchal structures present in the world that we live in. In JJ Bola’s book Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined he articulates these structures as a blade which cuts across gender:

Because society is generally patriarchal, in that it favours men that occupy privileged positions, it makes it seem as though men do not have issues they also suffer from. It is a kind of double-edged sword, a poisonous panacea: that is to say, the same system that puts men at an advantage in society is essentially the same system that limits them, inhibits their growth and eventually leads to their breakdown

In other words, the outcome of a patriarchal societal system for men and boys which puts them at an advantage in areas such as employment and pay, is also one that perpetuates mental-ill health, increased chances of substance misuse, and a criminal record. Issues which in turn contribute to other evils such as misogyny, sexual harassment, and gender-based violence. 

Within such a context, targeted interventions with young working-class men in education are not conducted in opposition to promoting greater gender equality. Rather they could be a powerful tool in breaking the cycle. In a world where the toxic narratives of Andrew Tate worm their way into the ears of young men, education has the power to offer a hopeful masculinity. A strengths-based approach. One in which school doesn’t constitute a risk which make strategies to avoid physical or psychological harm a necessity, but a conduit to a future which is a welcome place for the man they choose to be.

However, we are a very long way from such a vision being realised. Although there has been vital and much needed research into masculinity and educational transitions by academics such as Steven Roberts, Nicola Ingram and Mike Ward, we start at a very low base when it comes to activity taken to address the issue. Because of the reasons described above, very few interventions have been robustly piloted in education, and even fewer have been evaluated. 

For the last 2 years, a network of educationalists called Boys Impact have held a conference which convened educational practitioners and researchers from across the UK. Organised in partnership with a variety of universities, the events brought together professionals to examine the issue and drive forward a collective approach to action.

The conferences have centralised the importance of negotiations surrounding masculinity. How intersecting experiences based on young men’s social, geographic and historical locations played out in their lives as learners in a classroom. At the most recent one, we even had a few pilot projects. Green shoots of practice emerging, offering opportunities to test out and learn from approaches.

Perhaps most importantly, it provided a platform for the voices of young men to be heard, challenging assumptions about who working-class boys are, what they like, and how they imagine their future selves. Using Ulster University’s Taking Boys Seriously principles as a starting point, the conferences have also laid a foundational base of evidence by which to scaffold and evaluate new activity. A tool allowing institutions to take a data-led approach in activity designed to close the GCSE attainment gap for working-class boys.

A call to action

The work, and its resultant activity in pedagogy, policy and practice provides a way forward. A shared understanding and a set of principles by which we can start to turn the dial. But the challenge is substantial, and given the sparsity of activity currently taking place, it’s urgent.

If everyone who attended the conferences took the lessons learned and were proactive in individually applying them in their contexts, we would be a giant step forward from our current position. But it would still not be enough.

Significant impact requires a collective approach to action in this space. One which provides the bandwidth to tailor activity, meeting the needs of our young men and their communities at a local level. One in which educational institutions can be a convening force, demonstrating a civic commitment to supporting young men on Free School Meals in their localities through collaborative action. One which includes schools, community groups, third sector organisations, and, most importantly, the young people themselves.

At Boys Impact we have developed a vision for a series of Boys’ Impact Hubs. Regional groups that bring together key stakeholders from education, the community and the local authority to pilot activity designed to support working-class boys’ attainment. Last week at my University in Bournemouth, we convened the first meeting of Dorset Boys Impact Hub.

Collaborating with eight institutional leaders from secondary schools across the region, we presented a case study where a pilot of in-school activity at a local institution had closed the GCSE attainment gap for their young working-class men.  How the Taking Boys Seriously principles provided a mechanism to start doing something, and in this instance, it worked.

Impact for young men

Locally we have begun to build a coalition of educators who hold the power to strategically pilot activity. To learn as they go and make a positive difference in the lives of the young people in their care. They have an appetite to make a difference for them, and the means to try something new. 

They also won’t be going it alone. Each of these regional hubs will form part of a Boys’ Impact; a national network which champions effective practice, supports evaluation, and has a national voice in issues related to inequality and education for boys who are eligible for Free School Meals.

We’ve taken the first steps on a very long road. One which we are determined will lead to a future where education is a catalyst toward happy, healthy futures for young working-class men and those they are close to. A powerful mitigating force against the inequalities they may face.

Our next conference will be taking place in September 2024 at the University of Wolverhampton. If you would be interested in supporting the event, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.  

our goals

Quality education for all

We believe in quality education for everyone, everywhere and by highlighting the issue and working with experts in the field, we can start to find ways we can all be part of the solution.