My son and Britain’s boy crisis

25% of boys go to school without the abilities to talk in full sentences and following some primitive instructions by teachers. Girls perform much better in both tasks, so Martin Daubney decided to understand why there is this education gender gap.


When I saw by 7-year old son, Sonny, walk into his first classroom the first morning, my insecurities and hopes all went in with in.

Like many parents, I found myself scanning the primary school league tables and taking my time to choose the right school for him, finding one only after the visits to 9 other in southeast London. During all those visits I’ve noticed one thing: there was no school who had male teachers run primary classes.

2/3 of the schools I have visited had no male teachers at all, so I have chosen one that was completely different. Here, the education is organized by an adequate female and three talismanic male teachers. I see strong men from afar, as I’m a coal miner’s son and I know how they have to look.

There was the steely-eyed deputy head, who manned the gates in a three-piece suit, and oozed “Don’t mess”. The 6ft 4in PE teacher, built like an Olympian, commanded instant respect. Then there was the barrel-chested music teacher, who wooed the playground with amazing flourishes on the steel drums.

I wanted my boy to be disciplined by strong male teachers like them, because, 30 years ago, strong male teachers brought me back from the brink of a wasted life.

Like many boys, I was a late starter. I still recall being frozen with terror that I couldn’t write my name at the age of five. A few years later, my parents divorced and in the emotional fallout I took my impotent rage out on the world with my fists. Soon, I was in fights most days, and my mum was called in.

What saved me was no-nonsense discipline, patient, boy-friendly teaching – and the odd clip around the ear, both from Mum and male teachers who’d been former military men.

Later, my breakthrough moment came at my comprehensive school, when, aged 14, my geography teacher, Mr Ward, took me to one side and said, “Daubney, stop faffing about. You’re the smartest kid in this room. Drop the clown act and you’ll go all the way.” That moment – a strong male mentor having faith in me – changed my life. I became the first boy in my family to make it to university, studying geography, thanks to my hero, “Wardy”.

If British boys had a report card, it would read, ‘Must try harder’

But just three years after choosing Sonny’s school, the music teacher is the last man standing. Our old-fashioned head was replaced by a more touchy-feely, “growth mindset” principal, who lasted less than a year. Now the school is experiencing some problems with discipline. Sonny’s becoming a handful in class. At home, he’s becoming harder to manage. Now I fear my own history might be repeated. My worries about Sonny keep me awake at night.

The omens for British boys don’t look good. In 2016, the reality is that boys at every level of education are the worst performers. If British boys had a report card, it would surely read “Must try harder.”

In July, Save the Children claimed boys are nearly twice as likely to be behind from the moment they begin school. A quarter of boys in England – 80,000 – start reception, aged four, struggling to speak a full sentence or follow basic instructions. From that point on, save for A* grades at maths, boys never catch up.

By the age of 8, in 2015 83 per cent of girls in England achieved level 4 and above in reading, writing and mathematics, compared with 77 per cent of boys. At GCSE, girls have outperformed boys at most subjects for 27 years, with 52.5 per cent of boys achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and maths this year, compared with 61.8 per cent of girls.

Damningly, the worst performing of all groups – below all females and Asian and black boys – are white, working-class boys.

Only 26 per cent of white British boys on free school meals gained five A*-C GCSE grades, including English and maths, compared with 40 per cent of black boys and 63 per cent of all other pupils on free school meals. Poor white boys are “the new educational underclass”. Twenty-five years ago, that could have been me.

At A level, in 2014/15, the average point score in England for girls was 218.4 as against 213.1 for boys. There are now 90,000 more women than men in our universities – a record gender gap. British women are now 35 per cent more likely to attend university than men.

Water Hall School. From left: Tyler, Abid, Philip, Brogan and Joshua, all aged 10, with their teacher Jamie AtkinsJUDE EDGINTON

This generation of failing and failed boys translates to the most damning statistic of all: there are now 65,000 more unemployed male NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) than female, while men in their mid-twenties on average now earn less per hour than women in full or part-time roles.

Within one generation we have seen everything we deem to be true about equality completely flipped. And despite high-profile campaigns to get more girls in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths), boys have had few political allies in the corridors of power. Nobody, it seems, cares about our failing boys. I imagine a few parents are even looking up things like “how to start your own school” online to see if they might be able to set up somewhere that would give them control of who they hire and, to an extent, the running of the school itself.

No one feels this pain more than the parents of boys they believe have been abandoned by the current education system.

Helen Trussler has seen her son, Harry, 13, gradually switch off at the middle-class school in Guildford, Surrey, at which her daughter, Beth, 18, excelled. “Right from the start, Harry’s teachers told me my boy was a problem,” says Trussler, 45, a care worker. “When he was four, his teachers said he was ‘socially maladjusted’. It seemed ridiculous: he was just a child.

“When he was five, they told me he had ADHD and was on the autistic spectrum. It was really scary. Educational psychologists assessed him, but found nothing. But from then on he believed he was ‘special needs’. The label stuck. Part of the problem is almost all his teachers have been women. They just don’t seem to understand boys.

“When he was ten, his teacher said, ‘You’ve got to pass these Sats or you’ll be one of the clowns.’ It’s like if you tell a boy that he’ll be a failure, he’ll believe it. He still says, ‘She said I’d end up here.’

“He’s always in detention now. He finds school boring and switches off. The school’s reaction is to punish him. The system has let my son down.”

Andy Ward, 43, dad to 2 boys aged 11 and 13, believes today’s boys don’t seem to have the same aspirations as girls, a feeling that is reinforced at school.

Teachers say, ‘Boys learn in a different way.’ But they’ve no idea what that is

“It’s like the whole agenda is to drive girls and women forward, while ignoring boys,” says Ward, from Stevenage, Hertfordshire. “Girls are told they’re smarter, both genders believe it, and Sats results reinforce it.

“At my sons’ school, around 80 per of the girls aspire to going to university, and most of them Oxbridge. My son is in the top 10 per cent academically, but even he doesn’t think education is for him. The boys just aren’t encouraged in the same way.”

Shauna McHurley, 53, a mum of two from Manchester, says her 15-year-old son is “utterly uninterested in school”, because he feels his teachers have no interest in him.

“When I spoke with his teachers, they said, ‘Boys learn in a different way.’ But they have no idea what that is,” she says. “At parents’ evenings, the take-home messages are, ‘Boys are lazy, boys can’t focus and boys need to be more like girls.’ This entire generation has been fed the message ‘Girls can!’, but it’s translated to ‘Boys can’t’.”

So why are boys bottom of the class? And what can we do about it?

Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of university admissions board Ucas, has repeatedly stated we can end “years of lower educational achievement by boys” by recruiting more male teachers, pointing to the fact 85 per cent of British primary school teachers are women – along with 62 per cent of secondary. And it’s no wonder men are less likely to be tempted into teaching. With more and more expected of teachers these days, some men may feel they’re just not up to the job. There are also multiple risks associated with what are typically seen as “male-dominated subjects” such as P.E., where the risk of injury is much higher than in other, typically safer jobs. However, with good teacher disability income insurance, male teachers needn’t be worried about where their next pay-slip might be coming from if they get injured on the job.

“I’d like to see a concerted national campaign to attract men into teaching,” she says. “The evidence is clear. Girls are doing better throughout primary, secondary and higher education than boys; poor, white boys are the most disadvantaged group in entry to higher education; and the gap is getting wider. But despite the evidence, there has been a deafening policy silence on the issue.”

Dr Gijsbert Stoet, professor of cognitive psychology at Leeds Beckett University and an internationally renowned expert on gender differences in education, thinks the boy crisis is a matter of both nature and nurture.

“When it comes to boys falling behind, the real scandal is that this isn’t a scandal,” he says. “Boys mature slightly slower than girls, are more playful, and have an attentional system that is far more vulnerable to distraction.

This can lead to difficulties in classrooms, and video games can become a huge time sink at home, which affects homework and sleep. Our schools expect too much maturity from children, such as being able to make difficult decisions and planning in regard to their educational pathway, which hits boys harder than girls. By contrast, girls are more compliant and easier to teach. To help boys, mainly it is about increasing discipline – and boys are more easily disciplined by male teachers.”

Warren Farrell, a men’s activist in America, claims divorce and “dad deprivation” at home is a root cause for boys’ disengagement from education.

“Dad-deprived boys are less likely to display empathy, and tend to be less assertive, depressed, have nightmares, talk back and be disobedient,” he says. “These boys are more likely to have low self-esteem, fewer friends, and are likely to do worse in every single academic area, especially reading, writing, maths and science.

“We need a major overhaul of education systems, especially in inner cities where we know dad deprivation is higher.”

Being labelled is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re told you’re disruptive, or branded a failure, boys live up to it

In the Nineties, my mum, Mavis, now 72, worked at a special unit in Nottinghamshire as a family welfare officer for some of the most excluded, problematic boys in the county. Despite the swearing, threats, violence and hair-curling tales of drug-dealing parents and shoplifting kids, she fondly recalls those six years as the most enjoyable of her career.

“To understand the problems boys bring into school, parenting must be looked at – the values within the family,” she says. “The earlier you can deal with that, like at the age of five, the better. If they get to 11 without help, you’ve lost them.

“I had boys who never got on with women teachers. They came from homes where dads were nasty to mums – they learnt that behaviour. I had a perfect relationship with every one of them. I didn’t judge them, gained their trust and set firm boundaries.

“To them, school was safe. As soon as they left school, they weren’t safe. They went back to rough neighbourhoods; they weren’t getting fed; they weren’t getting sleep. But if you don’t try, you’ll never find out their potential. They deserved a chance.”

One place that is putting much of this theory into action is Water Hall Primary School in Milton Keynes. It is located in the heart of the Lakes Estate in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, one of the UK’s most impoverished estates, with high unemployment. Sixty per cent of dwellings on the estate claim housing and council tax benefit and 36 per cent of pupils were receiving free school meals in March 2012. As deputy head John Shaw, 37, puts it, “Every social deprivation you can name, we’ve got it, and then some.”

The Ofsted “outstanding” school scored a major breakthrough when its head, Tony Draper, a former president of the National Association of Head Teachers, installed a family support worker, Emma Burrows. Her approach, built on winning problem families’ trust via non-judgmental, in-home contact and tough love, turns out to be just like my mum’s.

“We set up the family support worker role because a significant number of families were in difficulties, with eviction, debts, family issues and mental health issues,” says Draper. “All these things act on pupils – and boys tend to take things on their shoulders, especially when there is no male role model in the family, which is all too often the case.

“It’s about building trust with parents, many of whom are scared of school, because they had bad experiences. Many of the children have shattered self-esteem. It’s our job to rebuild it.”

Built on the site of a Seventies school, the old institution’s leaking roof, disgusting toilets and smashed windows are a distant memory. Opened in November 2008, the 6 million, award-winning reincarnation is described by special educational needs co-ordinator Jac Ragazzino as “an oasis of calm”.

Inside, that air of calm is palpable. With a stone circle, gently rustling willow trees and piped classical music in its central courtyard, Water Hall feels like a luxury yoga retreat. The school day starts with free breakfast for all, followed by kaleidoscope therapy sessions, using light, colour, sound and deep breathing to instil a sense of calm and help build children’s self-confidence.

Shaw, originally from Wigan, has been teaching here for 12 years. “I was a toe-rag at school, and I’d had teachers who told me I’d never amount to much,” he says. “Being labelled is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re told you’re disruptive, or branded a failure, boys live up to it.

“So I get why these boys don’t like school, and I know what bad teachers look like. I wanted to reach out to boys like I’d been, and be a role model.

“Early on, I realised the boys wouldn’t engage with reading because lots of their dads were illiterate. So I read to them, and their jaws were on the floor. They’d literally never seen a man read in their lives.”

The ultimate proof his methods work are that boys he taught at Water Hall are now returning to teach here themselves. As Shaw says, “There’s no greater feeling. Teach a boy he is worth something and he will run through brick walls for you.”

Jamie Atkinson, 26, is the first of two former Water Hall boys who has returned to teach. As an alumnus of the school who grew up on the Lakes Estate, he’s an instant role model to the boys.

I get why these boys don’t like school. I know what bad teachers look like

“As a pupil, I wasn’t well behaved,” says Atkinson, who teaches Years 5 and 6. “I got bored easily, was hyper, got into a lot of trouble, was always in detention and never imagined becoming a teacher. Basically, I was similar to a lot of the boys we have here now.

“When I was in sixth form I trained to be a football coach. My teacher was a really strong male role model. He came from a deprived area; he understood me and my situation. I realised I could be a positive male role model too.

“The boys look up to me. Some of them don’t have dads at home. They just need a man who will show them support, belief and love.

“I win them over with football skills. If you do the simplest football trick in the world, to a seven-year-old you’re Ronaldo. Then they’re butter in your hands; they’re ready to learn. Maths is my other speciality. In class, I do mental maths, quickly in my head. It amazes them and hooks them in.”

Atkinson says the system is crying out for more male teachers – and he’s living proof.

“I did my teacher-training placements with another guy,” he adds, “and every single time, the head would offer us jobs, even when they hadn’t seen us teach, just because we were male.”

Respected heads, rank-and-file teachers, the chief of Ucas and global experts all seem to agree that we need more male teachers in British schools. But how might we achieve this?

Launched in New York in January last year, the NYC Men Teach programme, a collaboration with the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), might give answers. The project was set up with the aim of recruiting 1,000 male teachers of colour over three years, specifically to help the city’s lowest educational attainers: impoverished black boys. It set out to rectify an imbalance: while male students of colour make up 43 per cent of NYC’s public school system demographic, only 8.3 per cent of teachers are black, Latino and Asian men.

“We identified spaces of the city that had problems of justice, intergenerational poverty and poor educational attainment,” says the YMI’s executive director, Cyrus Garrett, 32, a former American football linebacker who chose education when his sporting career was ended by injury. “The young men all said the same thing, ‘There is nobody like us in classrooms – men of colour, from the neighbourhoods, who understand our lives.’ ”

Backed by $129 million ( 101 million) pledged over three years by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and private donations, the project exceeded expectations, delivering a 60 per cent annual increase in new male teacher applicants – up from 500 to 800.

With numbers like that, should pioneering projects like this be on the radar of UK policymakers? “Key to the project’s success was political buy-in,” says Garrett. “Once we had that, there was no stopping us.”

Which begs the question: do we have that same political will on this side of the Atlantic? Can we sacrifice our preconceptions of equality and simply target the neediest: boys, especially poor, white working-class boys?

During her first speech as prime minister in July, Theresa May noted, “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.” On September 6, Karl McCartney, Conservative MP for Lincoln, took that baton and led a parliamentary debate on “the gender education gap” and, in calling for an urgent government task force to investigate the issue, has made himself something of a boys’ champion.

“The gender education gap has been in existence for at least 30 years and is no secret,” he says. “It is unacceptable that governments of all colours, the education sector and the trade unions have wilfully continued to turn a blind eye to the issue. The ‘equalities industry’ is also strangely silent. It is as if the educational needs of boys do not matter.

“We need the government to find out what causes the gap and then implement policies to close it while ensuring we do not lower the performance of girls. We need to immediately ensure male role models in the form of male teachers are recruited and retained in far greater numbers.

“This is a One Nation, fairness and equality issue. We cannot afford to waste any more time. Our boys deserve better.”

Back at Water Hall, I join five ten-year-old boys in the circular kaleidoscope room. Four of them come from broken homes, and only one lives with his biological dad. All have been identified as being at risk of misbehaving due to out-of-school issues.

With its sensory lights, projectors, bean bags and meditative music, the room feels like a chill-out tent at a festival. Within minutes, you can see the tension dissolving from the boys’ shoulders.

Their teacher calmly says, “OK, boys, I’d like you to choose a colour from the fob in front of you, to reflect the mood you’re in, and tell me why you chose that colour.”

One boy sighs. “I’m choosing red, ‘cos I’m upset. Some bigger boys are bullying me outside of school.”

It’s a moving moment. Against the odds, Water Hall is building the kinds of boys a healthy society needs to function: warm, caring boys, in touch with their emotions, full of hope and ready to learn.

They’re building future male role models: the kinds of boy that I hope my son will one day grow up to be too.

Three new male teachers have now been hired at Martin Daubney’s son’s school