Educational Attainment of Boys — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 5 March 2024.

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Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley 9:30, 5 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the educational attainment of boys.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, which agreed to this debate.

The Government have been improving the overall standards of education in this country, which we can see in the fact that 80% of our schools are good or outstanding. We have been rising up the international rankings on maths, reading and science, and yet today boys are still not doing as well at school as they should be. They are underperforming and that cannot go on any longer.

In addition to that, boys are behind girls at every single stage of education. The gender attainment gap is an expression of their underperformance because there is no biological or other intrinsic reason why boys should be behind girls, as they have been for the past 30 years. It is not a competition or a battle of the sexes, of course—we all want our girls to learn, to do well, to reach for the stars. But as a Parliament and as a society, we must want our boys to do the same. The figures are stark, as is the lack of interest or action, which I will come to later.

Let me run through a few facts. At 11, in reading, writing and maths, 56% of boys meet the expected standard, compared with 63% of girls. At 16, 43% of boys and 47.2% of girls received a grade 5 or above in GCSE English and maths. At 18, 34,000 fewer British boys every year go to university than girls of the same age. Boys are also behind girls in terms of exam performance in A-levels, T-levels and vocational education. At 16 to 24, more than 400,000 young men are NEETs—not in education, employment or training—and fewer young men go into the majority of our professions than young women.

We should also mention exclusions: another sign of boys not doing so well. The latest figures that I have show that 4,677 boys were excluded from school in one year. Those figures are hidden in plain sight. The Government, education research bodies, think-tanks, trade unions and social mobility organisations all know them, and yet there is silence—a silence of inaction, a silence of acknowledgment, a silence of care.

Research papers from academic research bodies and think-tanks continually highlight the facts, but say precious little on what should be done. One published only this year focused on how girls were outperforming boys, yet the main recommendation was to ask why so few girls study science, technology, engineering and maths—unbelievable! The plight of the boys was made invisible. Similar recent research reports give a scant nod to the gender attainment gap, but do not seek to explain it, let alone put forward ideas on what to do. Boys’ educational underperformance is a truth and no one dares speak its name: silence across the educational establishment.

Some have spoken, though. My hon. Friend Mr Walker, the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, cannot be in Westminster Hall this morning because he is chairing the Committee at this precise time. He reminded me recently, however, that the Committee has made a number of recommendations about the need to support boys in school. He believes it is a matter of concern that boys are disproportionately represented among many groups. He wants schools to be inclusive and to unleash the potential in every pupil and thinks that understanding the best ways for them to support boys and drive forward their academic attainment is so important. I know that he welcomes this timely debate.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys. Our fourth policy report in this Parliament focused on boys’ educational underperformance. As in all our reports, we asked experts in the UK and across the world to speak to us. Crucially, they included six brilliant headteachers from across the UK—from Dorset, London, Cheltenham, Birmingham, Sussex and Rochdale—who have closed the gender attainment gap in a way that has also supported their female students.

We also heard from a national network of educators led by Dr Alex Blower, the access and participation development manager at Arts University Bournemouth. They are implementing an educational framework based on the “taking boys seriously” principles developed at Ulster University. I highly recommend that as a starting point, alongside how the six headteachers are succeeding at a practical level.

From what the successful school leaders told us, four main pillars need to be adopted. First, schools and trusts need to recognise the gap, collect data, then commit themselves to addressing it continuously throughout the school. From the board down to teaching assistants, it is a whole-school cultural approach. There has to be institutional will from the top to the bottom. The schools found that the problem is not with the boys, but with the way the adults treat them. They found, for instance, that some teachers were sanctioning boys more harshly than girls for the same offence and that they had lower expectations of boys and were inadvertently rewarding them for lower effort. Once the teachers recognised that, the improvements were immediate. They found that many of the disengaged teenage students were those who had arrived at secondary school aged 11 with low literacy skills. The successful schools put in place careful monitoring and interventions to ensure that language and reading skills enable the student to understand the lesson. It is basic stuff, not rocket science. We cannot expect the pupils to learn if they cannot access the curriculum because they do not have the basics. I will happily send the Minister a summary of what the successful schools have done.

Secondly, the schools create a boy-positive environment that is inclusive, fair—including with discipline—relational and aspirational. It is important that the boys and their parents recognise that they are included and that parents are supported if needed. The boys are not seen as a problem; they just need encouragement, understanding, to be believed in and given self-esteem. They need pushing. They need high expectations, their success to be celebrated and to understand the point of what they are being taught.

Thirdly, there need to be tactical interventions, especially on literacy, oracy and study skills, plus role models and mentors. The successful schools did not see role models and mentors as necessarily being outside school or in the media. They simply made sure that older boys were visible in succeeding in all subjects—not just traditional subjects such as football and physics, but drama, music and history. Not all boys need that but some do, especially boys with no father or positive male role model at home or in their community.

More male teachers are needed to show boys that learning is for them, too. It is telling that 80% of teachers told me that not having enough male teachers in school is a problem, especially given that 30% of primary schools have no male teachers at all. Yet the Department for Education and teaching and training institutions fail to promote teaching specifically as a career for young men. We have asked, but we have been ignored.

Lastly, as a society we simply need to take better care of our boys and support them when they need it. The attitude identified as harming boys’ progress is not limited to the school environment. We have all as a society inadvertently developed a culture that boys experience as hostile to them. We have developed the belief that boys’ underachievement is somehow natural and normal, because “boys will be boys”.

The negative narrative and indifference that boys face, especially those with problems, have to change. Some 41% of sixth form boys and girls have been told in school lessons that boys are a problem. Two in five boys have been told by schools, or outside organisations invited into schools, that they are a problem. Let that sink in. Two in five is a shameful statistic, and those schools need to take responsibility. What will the impact be? It’s hardly going to be positive, is it? Too many boys feel ignored, marginalised and unsupported.

We also need to deal with other problems caused by the adult world: family dysfunction; a lack of community aspiration and opportunity; gangs; criminal pathways; and social media’s so-called influencers. What to do? As well as making my earlier points, which are aimed at all involved in education, the APPG asked the Government to do a number of things and I will mention a few. We need to provide political leadership and a narrative that publicly acknowledges that the gender attainment gap exists and that boys’ relative underperformance is a problem that the whole educational community has to solve.

We need to launch or fund a sector-wide task and finish group, and a summit of headteachers to find and promote solutions, inviting successful heads to guide the taskforce and the Government’s thinking. We need a ring-fenced research programme on understanding and addressing the gender attainment gap, and to launch a “This boy can” campaign, similar to the “STEM is for girls” campaign and other initiatives. We should specifically promote careers in teaching and other professions, including health and social care, which would then put pressure on careers services.

We need to tell Ofsted to include the gender attainment gap in its assessment of schools and to give a positive assessment to schools that have policies and initiatives in place to address it. There should be more encouragement of mentoring schemes for boys, whether from current or former pupils, or community leaders. On behalf of boys without fathers or positive male role models at home, I urge the Government and the wider educational community to take action.

As a society, Government and Parliament that believe in inclusion and equality, we cannot let this situation continue. We must not and cannot tolerate our boys not doing as well at school as they should. The time to stop the inaction and stop ignoring the issue has come. We have to come together and tackle the underachievement of boys in our schools. We can and must do that together.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:44, 5 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I thank Nick Fletcher for bringing forward this debate. He has spoken on this issue many times in Westminster Hall and the Chamber, with a real passion for the subject, encapsulating his concerns for his constituents and for our young boys. I will do likewise for my constituency, because this issue has been on my radar throughout my time as an elected representative, from when I was a councillor, starting in 1985, through my time as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and now as an MP.

The hon. Gentleman clearly laid out the problem and I join him in speaking out for those young boys who seem to fall through the cracks. It is a long time ago, of course, but I can well remember that as a boy my attention was hard won by the teachers at school. Sometimes my mind tended to wander, and for that reason many a duster sailed past my head and many a cane came down upon my hand—all justified and well deserved. I do not think that it did me any harm; it may have motivated and challenged me to focus a wee bit more in the class and to do the right things.

The issue I am trying to get at is that times were much different. I can remember teachers encouraging me— I also have to say, Mr Paisley, that you and I both will have been encouraged by our parents, both mum and dad. They are the motivation for us in many cases; they are the encouragers who make us try to achieve higher goals and higher things, and we are thankful for them. They ensured we went through the exams and went straight out to work, though I certainly know how easy it would have been to slip through the cracks, like those young people the hon. Member for Don Valley referred to.

Every time A-level or GCSE results come out, I like to remind those who feel disappointed—I say this very humbly—that I did not excel at exams in the way that I should have. That was probably a case of not focusing and not putting in the hard swotting that was necessary. However—again, I say this very gently and humbly— I started work, progressed through that to my own business and ultimately became an elected representative. There are things that can be done and just because exams do not work out when someone is 16, 17 or 18, that does not mean that life is over and it cannot get better.

The issue of educational attainment for boys is one that my colleagues in Strangford, the former Education Ministers Michelle McIlveen and Baron Weir of Ballyholme, worked on very closely. Now, a good friend of ours, Mr Paisley, Paul Givan, is in the post and he really focuses on those issues back home. It is an accepted fact in Northern Ireland that Protestant males from working-class backgrounds are the lowest achievers, with some all-boys schools only having around 30% of pupils attaining A to C grades in five GCSEs, so there are a lot of things to do back home—that is not this Minister’s responsibility, of course, but I mention them because they relate to the story and the debate before us today.

The topic has been the subject of numerous reports and actions taken to improve the outcomes that some have labelled a generational educational problem. Indeed, the underachievement of young Protestant males in the constituency of my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson, such as at Dundonald High School, is similar to that in mine.

One of my constituents works in a school. He has only five boys in his class and he caters to them day and daily on an individual basis because that is his focus and his responsibility. Some of the boys are incredibly bright but also incredibly troubled, with backgrounds that make their outlook on life understandable. Other boys struggle with the basics and use anger in an attempt to distract from what they believe is their failure—but in my opinion, the failure is not theirs. It is ours. The society we live in and the education system in place have allowed a situation where those who do not thrive academically feel like failures.

We have to make sure they do not feel like failures—we have to lift them above that. We need surgeons, but we also need the people who make the scalpels and the surgeons’ tools. Those who manufacture the knives are as necessary as those who wield the knife, something that seems to be lost in some approaches to learning. It is important that teaching captures our young people’s attention and takes them forward.

Having said that, I am aware of programmes in Northern Ireland, such as the Usel programme, which takes the children referred by social workers and who have slipped through the gaps and provides them with learning and employment and, more importantly, helps them to find their place in a fulfilling way. I have sat on the board of governors for Glastry College since 1987, approximately 37 or 38 years, and my boys grew up with young boys from Greyabbey.

Some of those boys were never going to achieve educational standards—it was never going to happen. They knew what they were going to do: they were going to work on the farms or building sites, because that was where their vocation was. Opportunities do not always come through education, but the opportunities to have education must be there. That is what we are really asking for. I am asking to make sure that those young boys have that opportunity and can do those things.

Those programmes are vital. I recently spoke to a lady involved in running one of them in a café, who told me that the overwhelming majority of children in the programme were young boys who simply did not feel worth anything or that they could achieve anything. In some cases, their dads were in prison, and some did not even know who their dad was. That is a fact of society; it is a fact of life. That is not a judgment, by the way— I am making an observational point because we have got to reach out, try to do things better and bring people forward.

Those cases are heartbreaking. The need for programmes and small classes is clear, but so is the need to change the structure so that those who excel in the practical know that they are valued and vital. That takes changes from the root, but all that takes money. There is no better person than this Minister to be asked this question, or to encapsulate our thoughts, put them together and tell us how the education system here on the mainland will work. It takes money and determination to help to make a change, and that is the message we need to send from this House today.

Grades are important and educational standards are vital—but, with respect, they do not always equate to success. I say that gently but honestly. Success is finding happiness, fulfilment and joy in life, and people need to know their worth in order to achieve that. Today must be the first step.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 9:51, 5 March 2024

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I begin by wishing everyone a very happy St Piran’s Day. St Piran is the patron saint of tin miners and we have adopted him as our national saint in Cornwall, hence my attire.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on securing this debate on a very important issue—one that he feels passionately about, as do I. He opened the debate by laying out the case very clearly. Although this debate is about academic attainment, and that is clearly important, it should not just be about that. I stand before Members as someone who left school at 16—as I often say, most of my teachers thought I left long before that—and could not wait to get out of education, although I did quite well in my O-levels. I am a great believer that, although academic attainment is important, it is by no means the only important thing in life. The most important lessons I learned in life, I did not learn in the classroom.

We need to keep things in perspective. As a country and as a Government, we sometimes put so much emphasis on academic attainment that that becomes counterproductive for those, particularly boys, who do not achieve it and then feel that they have not quite come up to the mark and may become demotivated as a result. The debate needs to be about more than just academic attainment.

Having said that, I think we have a real challenge in this country when it comes to how we educate, support, equip and enable boys to fulfil their potential in life. Some recent figures showed that there are now 83,000 more boys not in education, employment or training than girls. That should raise a number of questions. Why is there such a big disparity between the number of boys who drop out of education or training and are not in jobs and the number of girls who do the same?

We need only look at the suicide rate among men, particularly young men, to wonder what is going on in our country and our society today. Three quarters of all suicides involve men. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in this country, and that should really concern us. What is going on with the way we support, help and treat men that means so many of them decide to take their own lives?

I think there are a number of factors. I speak as a father to two boys, who are now grown men in their own right, and as a granddad to three, two of them boys—for the avoidance of doubt, the other one is a girl. I am so grateful, actually, that I am not a young man today because we seem to bombard our young men with so many negative messages about being a man.

The whole thing about toxic masculinity pushes negative messages all the time to young men, who then wonder what they are meant to be, who they are meant to be and how they are meant to behave. We need to take a long look at ourselves. I absolutely understand and agree that we have needed to address the inequality that many women have experienced in our society for a long time, and we have made huge progress on that, but we should not be putting men down as a result. I feel sometimes that that is what we have done, and we need to think carefully about it.

I am also concerned that we seem to put so much expectation on teachers. I am a great believer in the family and that having a stable, loving and positive family environment is the single thing that determines the outcome for boys and girls—for all children. Teachers clearly have an important role in providing education, but so often we expect our teachers to do far more than educate; we expect them to be social workers and mental health professionals and all sorts of other things. The state cannot do everything. I worry sometimes that we are always looking for the state to provide the answers to these challenges, whether in education, through schools and teachers, or other parts of the public sector, when I believe that most of the answers actually lie within the family. The Government have made some positive steps to support families and parents. That is hugely welcome, but we could do more to help parents to fulfil their role, rather than expecting teachers and other parts of the state to do it for them.

One thing I have noticed—the Minister is aware of this, and I am grateful for our meeting to discuss it—is that Cornwall, like other parts of the country, is seeing a huge rise in schoolchildren suffering with mental health conditions or who have neurodiverse conditions, and the education system is struggling to support them properly. Many parents are taking their children out and off-rolling them as a result. My observation is that disproportionately more boys are affected than girls. We need to look at what more we can do to support children struggling with these challenges and their parents.

As the Minister knows, I think fining the parents is not the answer. I have to put on record that I was disappointed that the Government are going to increase unauthorised absence fines for parents; that is not something I agree with at all. I think it is definitely the wrong thing to do. We need to provide help to ensure that children struggling with these conditions get the support they need, rather than threatening their parents with fines for the children not being able to attend school.

Finally, on the point about the underachievement of boys, a report into race and ethnic disparity in this country was commissioned by my right hon. Friend Mrs May when she was Prime Minister. It found that one of the most disadvantaged groups in our country was white working class boys in coastal towns. I would ask the Minister: what have we done with that information? In Cornwall, where we clearly have many coastal towns and villages, it is young people, and particularly boys, growing up in those communities who consistently underachieve.

My Cornish colleagues and I worked hard to get Cornish included as a recognised national identity in the recent census. That has been really helpful, because we now have real data on how Cornish people are faring. The census found that only 14% of 18 to 24-year-olds who identified as Cornish went on to further or higher education, whereas nationally it was 34%. The Cornish are 20% behind the national average. Again, I would say to the Minister: what are the Government doing about that?

We are very much aware of the underfunding of schools in rural areas, which the Government have begun to address, but there is still a long way to go. We need to look at the funding of schools and other services in coastal areas. Many young people growing up in our coastal towns and villages find themselves disadvantaged because of the very nature of the challenges that coastal towns face. That is feeding through into the underachievement of those young people, particularly young boys.

I ask the Minister: what more can the Government do to support coastal communities and to ensure that schools in coastal communities get the resources that they need to close that gap or disparity, so that young people growing up in our coastal towns and villages do not suffer the disadvantage that they have done for far too long? I believe that this really should exercise the Government, particularly Ministers in the Department for Education, to look at what is going on and provide the support that we really need in Cornwall and other coastal parts of the country.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford 10:02, 5 March 2024

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Paisley. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on securing this incredibly important debate on the educational attainment of boys, and I also congratulate him on his excellent and constructive speech, which I am sure gave the Minister and his team a lot of food for thought.

Like my hon. Friend, I have raised this matter in debate and discussion on numerous occasions and not enough has been done to date by our Government to address these issues, despite the fact that our Government have been very successful in all that they have done in the past decade to improve our education system and to make it positive and successful. I pay tribute to the tireless work on men and boys’ issues by my friend and campaigner, Mark Brooks OBE, who has done so much to raise this issue outside this Chamber by campaigning across the country.

Overall, we know that there is an attainment gap between boys and girls. That is not a recent phenomenon—it has been the case for many years. The trend continues, and at all stages of education, boys lag behind girls. I am a great believer in social mobility, and education is an important path to achieve that. Opportunity through education and offering good education is what we all want. As a former teacher and lecturer, I have been disappointed to see how the issue of educational attainment for boys has not progressed in the way that I would have liked seen—I know that the Minister will agree with that too. Girls outperformed boys at the expected standard for all subjects in 2023, except for maths, where they were neck and neck or maybe the boys were slightly better. In reading, 76% of girls met the expected standard, which was down from 80% in 2022, while 70% of boys met the expected standard, which was unchanged from 2022. That is a huge gap in educational achievement between boys and girls.

I follow my hon. Friend Steve Double in highlighting the underachievement of white working class boys, which has made the headlines quite a number of times in the past decade. There is obviously no quick fix to this long-standing and growing problem, which has developed into something of a taboo subject. Both the previous speakers have highlighted the fact that we have concentrated on women’s issues, which are very important, but we have somewhat neglected some of the issues facing men—which my colleagues have already raised, and I will not repeat.

White working-class boys from disadvantaged backgrounds underperform against boys of all other races and ethnicities in our country. The question is why. That demographic is falling further and further behind and shows no signs of catching up, which is a huge worry. White schoolboys eligible for free school meals have lower higher-education participation rates than any other group when analysed by the sex and ethnicity of those receiving free school meals.

Even for those not eligible for free school meals, white boys still trail. They have a higher-education participation rate of 36.4%, compared with Chinese boys, who have the highest participation rate. Why have Governments of different political persuasions not attacked that problem and come forward with solutions? What should be done? What can be done? We have heard some examples and I will not go down repeat them. We need to look seriously at tackling this problem, but to do so it must be accepted that a lot of working class white boys have disadvantaged backgrounds, which we have to help them to overcome.

We understand the reasons, but what action should we be taking? Schools need to adapt more and the curriculum needs to be adapted too. Academic excellence is not the only thing that matters, and there are a lot more jobs and opportunities out there that are not based on academic achievement. Good role models are also absolutely vital. The family is the primary educator, and one hopes that parents, as well as teachers, will have a huge input, but there are many other candidates for role models, including local sportsmen and women, businesses and former students, particularly those who are really successful.

In schools in my constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford we quite often get those people to come in to enthuse the young boys and make them realise that, yes, they have got to have a basic education, but beyond that there are huge opportunities in sport, business, retail, music and entertainment—there is a great wide world out there that is not based on academia. There are many careers and jobs about which, unfortunately, teachers are not knowledgeable. It is absolutely true that teachers do a fantastic job; they are dedicated and hard-working, but former students, or successful footballers or whatever, who can come in and talk to boys about their lives and careers are great motivators.

When we look at today’s society in our country there is such huge opportunity. We want these underprivileged lads to have that opportunity to advance themselves, but they need to understand what is there. It is not just the academic curriculum that matters—teachers and parents need to be informed of what is available and of the routes through which people found successful career opportunities.

Great teachers can give inspiration for life—we all remember inspiring and motivational teachers. I had one when I was in sixth form many years ago called Peter Sillis. He was my history teacher. He was a great motivator, telling people that they did not just have do jobs based on academic achievement. He always told me that I had the wrong political views, but it was the 1960s and I am afraid that all the teachers were left-wing. That did not stop us sitting in the front desks opposite him in his lessons arguing back whenever possible. He was a great Harold Wilson supporter—I will not go any further with that one.

There are many dedicated and outstanding teachers for whom we are grateful. We praise teachers because it is a difficult job in today’s society. It is more difficult than when I was a teacher and when I was at school, because society and, I am afraid, behaviour has changed. However inspirational and good teachers are, they cannot do the work alone. They require the backing of the education establishment, the Government, academics, businesses, industry and the general population, believing in the teachers and in the boys. We need to motivate them. Of course, parents are the primary educators, and we need to help and enthuse them and get them to be positive and look at what can be done. Academies are a great triumph of our Conservative Government because they have opened up a different world, and they run differently from when I was teaching and when I was at school. That has been a positive achievement. Quite often, academies and secondary schools have people in to offer advice and to discuss matters.

We have heard that there is a shortage of male teachers. That is a regret because a lot of our primary schools have few, if any, male teachers. That may be difficult for families if at home the mother is bringing up the children without a male role model. We must never forget that boys from the most economically deprived areas of our country are just as clever, talented and able as anybody in the best areas. What they lack are the opportunities and the chance for support, encouragement and confidence. Being confident that they can and will do things is key in today’s society. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley mentioned reaching for the stars, and that is a good matter to highlight. Boys can succeed if they get the opportunity to do so.

We need more publicity from the Government, academies and businesses and more investment in boys at an earlier age, particularly white working-class lads. In particular, we must not at any time let boys decry education, become disillusioned and opt out, so we end up with an underclass who are not educated and have not had the opportunity to make something of themselves. Yes, we need qualifications, but it is the basics that they all need—the ability to read and write and to be confident with maths. They will hopefully see what the opportunities are if we bring people into schools who are not educationalists. I know we as politicians go into schools and talk about life at Westminster, but we need more people to go into schools and talk about their careers. If we do not, not just individuals but society will be disadvantaged because there is huge talent out there among young males, including young white males, which needs to be grasped so they can all have a positive future. This debate is important, and I know the Minister is listening with great concentration, but he needs to take back to the Department the fact that this is an issue. The Government have done good things in many other areas, but this one is still in his in-tray.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 10:13, 5 March 2024

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett, and I agree with him that no one forgets a good teacher. Indeed, my own socialist English teacher remains in regular contact with me, continuing to lobby and raise issues with me on almost a weekly basis. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on securing the debate and on the report from his all-party parliamentary group on this important issue.

Education is everything. It is the route to opportunity and the way to ensure that everyone is best equipped to fulfil their ambitions and dreams—it is, indeed, a silver bullet. Research shows that boys perform worse than girls on most major educational indicators through their school years, and some figures in particular should cause us concern. Boys are far more likely to be suspended and twice as likely to face permanent exclusion, and less than 60% of boys meet the expected standard in English, reading, writing and maths.

Specific groups of boys are particularly impacted by low attainment. Of those eligible for free school meals, only 34% of white British boys, 35% of mixed white and black Caribbean boys and 36% of Caribbean boys attained grade 4 in both English and maths GCSEs in 2023. Most noticeably, boys from Gypsy, Roma or Traveller backgrounds have especially low pass rates. I mention the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community in particular as Darlington has a high proportion of that population. I want to mention St Teresa’s Primary School, which is led by the excellent head Paula Strachan, who has done so much work focusing on the GRT community.

We must take these figures seriously. The Government have taken, and is taking, steps to close the gap, having driven up standards over the past decade. In Darlington, 80% of schools are now rated as good or outstanding, in comparison to 2010, when only 65% of our schools met those standards.

However, we must not forget the young working-class boys from the groups I mentioned—the kids who often miss out on so much. In Darlington I have seen at first hand that many working-class kids miss out on the aspiration and inspiration to succeed in education. Many of those boys come from families where they may not have a male role model; if they do, that male role model might not be in employment. Being encouraged to succeed is much more the norm in middle-class households, as well as in some ethnic minority communities. That is something that we can and must change. It is down to us as politicians, as well as our schools, community groups and Government—with parents, perhaps most importantly of all, taking the lead—to inspire kids to take education seriously, and schools need to have the resources to facilitate that.

In my role as the MP for Darlington, I have ensured that I have spent time at every one of the 36 schools in Darlington, hosting assemblies, answering questions and talking about my career in business and politics. That might only be a small thing, but it might be the one thing that inspires one person. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, who is leading this debate, has organised an amazing programme of role model lectures in his local schools, and his work in that respect is an example to us all. I am interested in hearing from the Minister what plans there are for more innovative ways to inspire and teach the boys who are falling behind where we want them to be.

Reading is a good place to start. The library at Skerne Park Primary School was opened last year by children’s author Cressida Cowell as part of her Life-changing Libraries scheme, in partnership with BookTrust. The project gave the school a dedicated library space and new books, and it has inspired teachers to put reading at the forefront of the curriculum. On my visits to Skerne Park, I have been delighted to see the enthusiasm with which pupils talk about what they are reading, and how much the variety of books engages children’s creativity and imaginations. Many of those inspired kids may previously have missed out on more conventional forms of education.

I was also delighted when the historic Darlington Library on Crown Street reopened its doors last year, having been saved by community campaigners after the Labour council sought to close it down. It is a vibrant place with a huge variety of books, where children, parents and carers can further indulge in reading in. It is beautifully decorated with murals depicting scenes from Charlie Mackesy’s wonderful “The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse”. It is a vital hub for our community, with a focus on being welcoming to children and therefore encouraging them to read. It also helps to inspire parents to encourage and embrace their children in learning. Facilities such as that can really inspire a love of reading and open doors to other worlds for our children.

In addition to that, we must not ignore the need for further focus on children with special educational needs and disabilities. As of January last year, 22% of boys were identified as having special educational needs. That is a further sign that we must look at innovative ways to make sure these children are educated in the way that best fits them. More than 300 children in Darlington are still waiting up to three years for a child and adolescent mental health services assessment, so much more still needs to be done to ensure that more boys do not miss out.

Before I conclude, I must put on record my concerns about Labour’s plans to tax private education. When I recently visited Dame Allan’s School in Newcastle, I was blown away by number of places it gives to local disadvantaged communities—funded entirely by itself. That could all be thrown away if VAT is added to school fees, which risks robbing that community of that opportunity.

We cannot uneducate a person who has learned to read. If we arm them with the basics, we lay the ground for them to succeed. Education is a silver bullet in terms of achievement, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what more the Government are doing in this area.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley 10:20, 5 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is great to follow my hon. Friend Peter Gibson, who made some incredibly interesting and pertinent points. I agree with him particularly about putting VAT on private schools. Abbeywood School, a private special school in Hellaby in my constituency, deals with people with severe SEN, and I worry that it will close if VAT is applied. That would have a detrimental effect on Rother Valley and on our children with special needs.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for the work, time and effort he has put into championing and supporting men and boys in this place through the APPG and for consistently raising this issue in debates and questions. I know that he feels strongly about it, and he is making a real difference in raising its profile. Prior to his election, these issues were not raised nearly as much as they are now. He really is giving a voice to men and boys and their place in this world, so I thank him for that.

It is an undeniably shocking statistic that more than three times as many men as women take their own lives every year. In fact, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50, with one suicide taking place every 90 minutes, which is as long as this debate will last. I believe a lot of this stems from education in schools and from a lack of attainment, and to tackle this epidemic, we need to take a new approach. There have been some incredibly effective adverts and advice—Norwich City FC’s incredibly powerful “You Are Not Alone” advert springs to mind—but they focus on tackling symptoms, not on addressing the causes of male suicide.

To address any problem, and especially this issue, we must start with young people. Schools are the perfect place to build self-esteem and character and to grow the boys of today and the men of tomorrow. However, on the facts, it is clear that many schools are not yet the welcoming, nurturing place where all young men can thrive. As we have discussed, boys are more than twice as likely to be excluded. Even by the end of reception, their attainment is already significantly behind that of girls. These shaky foundations do nothing for the rest of boys’ education, eventually leading to tens of thousands fewer boys attending universities than their female peers.

Crucially, this trend is exaggerated by external factors, especially in less well-off areas. Boys on free school meals continue to be let down by schools that fail to provide an environment geared towards them, and that has a consequential effect on their grades and thus their lives. After all, everything from earnings to employment and from happiness to suicide rates is heavily in favour of university graduates. The picture is even worse for white working-class boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are the least likely to gain entry to our elite universities of any socioeconomic group. Universities often pride themselves on their diversity and inclusiveness statistics but, when it comes to white working-class boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, all universities are abjectly failing. There are not enough—frankly, there are barely any—outreach programmes for this demographic group, who are just not going to university. Through no reason other than being born a boy in a working-class area such as mine, they are being pushed away from higher education and face a statistically worse quality of life—and even an earlier death.

What, then, is to be done to support these boys through education, so that they can grow into happy, fulfilled men? If the problem starts with early education, how can we foster a healthier, more boy-friendly education system? Getting more men into teaching is clearly a good start. Male role models can play an important part in a boy developing a healthy sense of self and growing into a well-adjusted man. Only a quarter of teachers with whom boys in school might spend the majority of their time are male, so we must do more to encourage men to re-engage with schools, and bring about a shift towards helping to understand young men, rather than excluding them.

However, when we go to the nursery sector—even before schools—that figure is dramatically worse. Only 3% of nursery teachers are men. That is a shocking statistic. At the very earliest age—I thank the Government and the Minister for opening up childcare places, which my girls are benefiting from—only 3% of teachers are male. That is an absolute disgrace. We need to make sure that men are seen by young boys as role models—as leaders, learners and educators—literally from as soon as they go to university, because at the moment they are not, and unfortunately that sets in train later failures.

However, the problem cannot be solved just with more male teachers. I know that young women can and do make brilliant and inspiring teachers, and are clearly good role models for young men. But there are thousands of small changes that could be made right across the education system that could incrementally improve it for boys—for example, encouraging them to play sports or perhaps learn an instrument, both of which have proven beneficial impacts on education and therefore on life. Perhaps we should be opening up diverse scholarships to working-class boys at schools, making higher education more open and accessible to a group who our universities are failing.

Perhaps, though, the most important thing we can do is continue to open up the conversation about our failure to properly provide a suitable education for boys, and especially white working-class boys, that can allow them to reach their full potential. We need to encourage a sense of togetherness and allyship, where currently there might be division or gender bias, to make sure they are supported in their educational career. We need an open and honest conversation, both within schools and between schools, to explore how to best support boys in their development towards becoming young men. We need to recognise the effects of education, and particularly the rejection from education that some boys feel, on the rest of their lives, and to build schools and universities designed to welcome and champion them.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett about bringing back former male teachers and alumni to talk to boys. Schools in Rother Valley such as Wales High School do that very well, but all schools should be bringing back as many people as possible—to talk to boys, to show success, to show that there is a future, to encourage them and to show them that they can achieve anything.

That leads me to a couple of other points I want to make about the current structural failings, which I do not think we have touched on yet. A University of Kent study from not that long ago found that boys felt they were not expected to do well at school. I am sure we have all seen this “Boys will be boys” attitude—“Oh, he’s misbehaving. Boys will be boys. They’ll be fine. It’s the girls who are sitting and reading.” Yes, boys will be boys, of course; but they are no less good than girls, especially when it comes to education. If boys are allowed to run amok or run riot, or are treated differently, they will not have the same expectations. We need to make sure they have those expectations. The University of Kent study was incredibly insightful, because the primary school boys who were interviewed felt that they did not need, and were not expected, to achieve the same as girls. But that is wrong: they need to be expected to achieve the same as girls, and we need to make sure it is the same.

Another point—I hate to say this, and I know my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley will criticise me for using this phrase—is gender bias. The University of Trento in Italy found that there was a gender bias in the marking of educational papers. When girls’ names and boys’ names were on the same papers, boys were found to be statistically marked lower—harder—than girls. However, in a blind test of exam papers, they were found to be equals, so there clearly is some sort of gender bias against boys when it comes to marking. If that is happening in school, it will lower the expectations of boys and retard their progress. That is wrong.

I think every Member here has mentioned that boys need to be encouraged, nurtured, treated differently and given better role models, and another aspect we should talk about is single-sex schools. Only 6% of schools in the UK are single sex, and the majority of those are female single-sex schools. I am not saying that single-sex schools are the best, or better or worse than mixed schools, but surely there needs to be an open conversation. If boys are doing worse at school—clearly, they are, and we all agree with that—surely there need to be schools that are geared to raising up boys, including some of the white, working-class, disadvantaged boys, and perhaps that should be in a single-sex educational space.

I declare an interest: I went to a single-sex male school and had a great time. It was wonderful; I felt nurtured and loved, and it was a very good school. I now have two girls, who will do well wherever they go to school. We need to look at this issue, because the drive since the 1970s has been to get rid of single-sex schools, and yet for some boys——and for some girls—single-sex schools might be the right place to be educated.

The last thing I want to touch on before I close is the ultimate responsibility for boys’ education, which is parental responsibility. We cannot get away from the fact that the majority of a boy’s time will be spent with his family, and the family is the bedrock of society, of education and of his future. We need to do more to support families, because it is families, the role models in families and the way boys are treated in families that will have the biggest effect on how boys do at school—not what a teacher says, but where they spend most of their time. We need to ensure that all policy has that family-friendly and family-centric approach first, because that is the most important thing for success for everyone, male or female.

I want to sum up by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and the all-party group for its report on how improving the lives of half of those in education will improve the lives of everyone else. Turning schools towards, not away from, young men will only serve to improve their lives and those of everyone in the community. We cannot allow the unseen killer of suicide to continue to claim men’s lives, and we must address the root cause of those tragic deaths. Schools are clearly where we need to start.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 10:31, 5 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Paisley. I, too, congratulate Nick Fletcher on securing this debate, which seeks to dig deeper into the educational attainment of boys at school, and other hon. Members on sharing their views this morning.

The attainment gap between boys and girls is something that starts at an early age and grows throughout a boy’s time at school. In 2022-23, according to Department for Education statistics, by the end of the reception year, just under two thirds of boys had what is classed as a good level of development, compared with about three quarters of girls. By the end of primary school, the proportion of boys reaching the expected standards of reading and writing remained lower than girls. Going into secondary school, boys lag behind girls across every headline measure collected by the Department for Education and, as hon. Members have mentioned, boys are more likely to be excluded from school during that time.

As hon. Members have also touched on, other significant attainment gaps exist in our school system. For example, following the covid pandemic, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and others grew, while white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds underperform compared with those of other races and ethnicities. Labour has set out how we would tackle the inequalities in our education system with our plan to break down the barriers to opportunity for everyone in this country, because all boys and girls should have the same opportunities to have an excellent education, leading to a good job and a good standard of living.

We know that the gap starts at a young age, where boys start school at a lower attainment level and with less developed language skills. Indeed, the pandemic shone a light on how a child’s early language development goes on to affect their later education. That is why Labour has called for primary schools to be equipped with funding to deliver evidence-based, early language interventions. That is something we would prioritise in government. Better communication skills would boost boys’ and girls’ outcomes and improve engagement with school.

Research has also consistently shown that the attainment gap is largest for those on free school meals, coming from the poorest families. Again, that issue has been raised by hon. Members today. We all know that there are shocking levels of child poverty in this country, leaving children too hungry to learn. That is why we would introduce free, funded breakfast clubs in every primary school to provide children with a softer start to the school day. That would give them an opportunity to play and socialise with their friends, developing their communication and social skills, as well as providing them a breakfast, setting them up well to learn throughout the day.

We know that the quality of teaching is a huge driver of pupils’ attainment. Quite simply, there are not enough teachers in our schools. Many teachers feel overstretched, and turnover is higher than before the pandemic, and there is no real plan to tackle the issues with their working conditions. They feel badly let down by this Government. To ensure that we have the best—and necessary—teachers in our schools who can deliver the best life chances for all our young people, Labour would recruit 6,500 new teachers to fill the gaps. We would pay for that by ending the tax exemptions that private schools currently enjoy.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Lady for her words and comments. It is World Book Day this week, and an event for it is taking place in Portcullis House. Looking to the future, should the Government change, is it the shadow Minister’s intention to ensure that books and reading would be a clear, core part of any child’s education?

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Indeed, we will have a debate here tomorrow about World Book Day and how important reading and literacy is for children. We recognise it as the absolute core foundation of every child’s start in life, ensuring the best education for every child. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted that today.

We would also reintroduce a school support staff negotiating body to ensure a proper voice for support staff, because we know that they power our schools, but unfortunately are currently leaving the profession in droves.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

Turning back to Labour’s plans to tax education, I wonder if the Labour party has actually done any modelling on how many children whose parents are struggling really hard to put their children through private education will end up in the state sector, and how many children on assisted free places, bursaries and so on, funded by those private schools, will end up back in the state sector?

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

As I said earlier, Labour believes that education should be a priority, and should be at the centre of national life for this country. That requires the necessary funding to ensure that there are teachers. We know there are teaching gaps throughout our school system. Young people are not being taught by specialists in their subjects, and we know there is a shortage. Teachers are struggling to manage the workloads as a result. Labour would prioritise supporting the teaching workforce for the 93% of children who are educated within the state sector. That would come by removing the current tax exemptions that private schools enjoy. That has been modelled by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, showing very clearly that we would have a net benefit from the policy, closing—I know hon. Members are here to debate this very point today—the attainment gap between the outcomes for all children at school, and particularly boys.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

The hon. Lady has not given us the figure that I asked for in my earlier intervention. It is simply my view, and I am sure that of all hon. Members on the Government side, that we do not level up opportunity by robbing opportunity from those who are already enjoying it.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

It is interesting that hon. Members are here today to discuss an education system that they are highlighting is currently letting children down, which we in Labour agree is letting children down. After 14 years in government, it is quite remarkable that hon. Gentlemen would take that attitude to a costed proposal that seeks to meet the huge demands within our education system and the requirement to ensure that every school has the teaching workforce it needs. That will be Labour’s priority. The choice we make in government will be to ensure that we have an education system that can meet the demands we are hearing about today.

I want to echo the points that have been raised about mental health. As has been highlighted, we know that boys are far less likely to reach out for support and often struggle to speak about mental health challenges. That is holding children and young people back, impacting on their ability to learn as well as their health, and the number of children waiting for support continues to rise, along with absence from schools.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I have been following the hon. Lady’s argument, which I believe is to put VAT on private schools and use the money from that to top up and improve the education system. We have also talked about suicide prevention. Obviously, suicide is a very complex issue when it comes to men and includes factors such as mental health. If the Labour party wants to put VAT on private schools to help education, then, following the same logic, the hon. Lady should agree with putting VAT on private healthcare to improve healthcare outcomes. Is it the Labour party’s position to put VAT on private healthcare to improve mental health outcomes?

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The Labour party will present our offer for Government when the general election comes, which we are all waiting for at the moment, and we will put our fully costed plans in our manifesto. We are focused on improving and increasing mental health support for young people, which I will get to.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I will respond to the previous intervention first. We will pay for that by ending the loopholes that non-doms enjoy in this country. We will fund mental health support, as well as breakfast clubs, which are intended to tackle the issues that hon. Members have highlighted in this debate, which are getting worse, not better. I hope that hon. Members would be minded to note that, because they are making the case to their own Government to find solutions to these problems—problems that a Labour Government would respond to.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Order. Before the hon. Member gives way, I remind colleagues that this is a debate on educational attainment of boys, not a general debate on the Budget, which will come later in the week.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

I have been listening with great interest. Obviously, the hon. Lady is putting forward Labour party policy generally. I am very concerned about what Labour would do if it ever got into government to help these working-class boys to achieve. The issues she is raising are very generalised.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I would not suggest that the right hon. Gentleman has not been listening to my speech, but I have set out a whole range of measures that Labour would put in place to raise the attainment of every child.

Going back to mental health support, we would ensure that there are dedicated counsellors in every secondary school and that there are mental health hubs in every community. Children and their families are waiting and waiting for the mental health support they need. The absence levels in schools are clearly being affected as a result.

It is clear that there is an attainment gap between boys and girls. It is Labour’s view that we need to do everything we can in government to break down the barriers to opportunity that too many of our children face, and we will do that. I agree with hon. Members: there is no silver bullet to solve this. That is why we have proposed a whole range of measures that match the ambition we have for every child. We would put the education of all our children at the heart of national life. It is the very least that our children and our country deserve.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 10:44, 5 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on securing a debate on this important subject. The last time that he and I were at an event on this topic was a meeting of his APPG, where he had invited Richard Reeves to come and talk about his book, “Of Boys and Men”. We discussed a lot of these issues. The book is very interesting and thought provoking. In my previous life as a charity director I was involved with lots of organisations that did great work to support boys through education and employment pathways, so I have a lot of sympathy with the issues that my hon. Friend raises. I thank him for his continued campaigning on this important issue.

The Government’s track record in education has been in improving standards dramatically. We have been rising up the league tables internationally in stark contrast to Labour-run Wales, which has been falling down them. Girls continue to outperform boys across most headline measures, although the gap has been narrowing. At key stage 2 the gap between boys and girls at the expected standard in reading, writing and maths has fallen since 2022; it is the lowest since 2016. Although that is in part due to a slight decrease in girls’ attainment, increased attainment for boys in reading, writing and maths combined has also supported that. Similarly at key stage 4 there was a gap of 6.6 percentage points between girls and boys achieving a grade 5 in English and maths in 2018-19. That was down to 4.3 percentage points in 2022-23.

However, we know there is more to do. Raising attainment for all pupils, including boys, is at the heart of the Government’s agenda. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley is right that boys’ attainment is not currently as high as that of girls. He will know that the attainment of some ethnic groups is not as high as some others, and that the attainment of free school meal children is not generally as high as non-free school meal children. I know that the issue of white working- class boys is something he has spoken about many times, as have my hon. Friend Steve Double and my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett. I was on the Education Select Committee when it did its report on the attainment of white working-class boys, which the Government at the time welcomed.

Our approach is to provide schools and teachers with the resources and expertise to target support at those that need it most. Often it will be targeted at disadvantaged young people. The pupil premium helps to provide extra support to improve the outcomes of disadvantaged pupils. The funding will rise to more than £2.9 billion in the coming financial year—an £18 million increase from the year before. We are targeting a greater proportion of the schools’ national funding formula towards deprived pupils—more than ever before. That will be more than £4.4 billion, or 10.2% of the formula allocated to deprivation this year.

More broadly, we have invested significantly in education to ensure that all young people can reach their potential. The core schools budget next year will be the highest ever in real terms per pupil, helping schools in their vital work to close attainment gaps and level up educational opportunities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley talked about the importance of literacy, as did my hon. Friend Peter Gibson. This is a key area of focus for us because evidence shows that high quality early childhood education, including language development and literacy, has a positive impact on outcomes in both the short and long term.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

On literacy, does the Minister agree that there should be a statutory requirement for every primary school to have a library? At the moment one in seven primary schools do not have a library.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I was not aware of that statistic. I absolutely agree with him about the importance of libraries and of children reading. When I visit primary schools in my own constituency, I tell all the children that the most important thing they can do is read a book. I share his enthusiasm for that.

We have invested more than £17 million in the Nuffield early language intervention programme, improving the language skills of reception age children who need it most following the pandemic. Our English hubs programme is improving the teaching of reading, with a focus on phonics, early language development and reading for pleasure. That has provided appropriate and targeted support to more than 5,000 schools across England since it was launched. Targeted support is also being provided through the national tutoring programme, with almost 5 million courses started since it began in November 2020. In 2022-23, more than half of the pupils tutored under the programme were boys, and we expect tutoring to continue to be a staple offer from schools, providing targeted support for those children who need it most.

My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington raised the important issue of SEND, and I completely agree with him. I had a very good visit to Beaumont Hill Academy in his constituency, and was impressed by the dedication of the staff team there. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay talked of the educational challenges in coastal areas such as his. He will know that Cornwall is one of our education investment areas, precisely for that reason, to be given a package of additional funding and support.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being incredibly generous with his time. May I place on the record my thanks to him for visiting the fantastic Beaumont Hill Academy last week? My sincere apologies for not being able to join him on that visit. Was he able to visit the site of our planned 48-place new special school?

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Unfortunately, I was not, although the plans were indicated to me. Attendance is obviously fundamental. Ensuring children reach their potential requires them to be in school, which is a big priority for us. We are more than doubling the number of attendance hubs to support 2,000 schools, investing £15 million to expand one-to-one mentoring to help 10,000 children. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, talked about the importance of mentoring. We will require all schools to share data to support early intervention. Our plan is working, with 380,000 fewer children persistently absent or not attending last year, and numbers continuing to fall.

My hon. Friend Alexander Stafford was right to raise how few men work in early years education. I wrote a piece a few weeks ago, trying to encourage more men into that area. On the teaching workforce more broadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley is right to say that men make up a smaller proportion of the teaching workforce than women. It is important to attract more male teachers to the profession.

We have seen some change. In state-funded nursery and primary schools, we have seen an increase of more than 6,500 male teachers since 2010, but we want to go further, through our campaigns to attract and retain excellent teachers, including more men. We want teaching to be an attractive and competitive profession. From September 2023, starting salaries rose to at least £30,000 in all areas of the country, alongside a 6.5% pay award for experienced teachers and leaders in the past financial year, ensuring all teachers launch their careers on a competitive starting salary.

On exclusions, creating a culture with high expectations of behaviour is very important. Our behaviour in schools guidance provides clarity and support to schools, to help them create calm, safe and supportive environments. We are clear that permanent exclusions should be used only when absolutely necessary, as a last resort, and should not mean exclusion from education. I was concerned by what my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay described, and we are looking at what action may need to be taken there.

Briefly touching on professions, I used to work on widening access to professions before I became an MP. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley is absolutely right that professions, such as medicine, the law and others, have seen a huge shift from being overwhelmingly male to overwhelmingly female in their entrants. That is less so at senior levels, but certainly in entrance to those professions, that is the case. I used to work on this issue, partly from the aspect of class and socio- economic background. Actually, a lot of those professions had been successful in recruiting more women and ethnic minorities, but disproportionately from private schools and professional families. Whether male or female, black, white or Asian, it was considerably harder to get into those professions if from a working-class background. Indeed, an individual is 24 times more likely to become a doctor if a parent is a doctor, and only 6% are from a working-class background. I agree with my hon. Friend about the issue and would only say that there are a number of issues about access to those professions and more work is needed to make sure that who gets into them is representative of the country at large.

Jim Shannon and others set out the importance of people, and especially boys, understanding the full range of jobs and careers open to them and of having mentors and other support to encourage them along those pathways. That is a big part of the Careers & Enterprise Company’s network of enterprise advisers, who are volunteers from businesses who help schools in that regard.

We accept that there is always more that can be done to improve outcomes for children of all backgrounds, including boys, and we will continue our work to ensure that in every area, children can access excellent schools and high-quality technical and higher education and go on to good jobs. I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley for continually raising the issue of educational attainment for boys. The Government agree that boys should feel included and supported at school to help them reach their full potential and we will continue to work to deliver our commitment of building a world-class education system for all children and young people.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley 10:56, 5 March 2024

I thank everyone who has taken part in this extremely important debate. I also want to put on record my thanks to Mark Brooks OBE, who is a colleague and friend. He has done a huge amount of work on the matter over the past few decades.

I am genuinely pleased by many of the points made. One thing that has come through is the importance of family. We put an awful lot on teachers, but I genuinely believe, as my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett said, that we tend to put too much on teachers a lot of the time. The family is the silver bullet for everything—I genuinely believe that. Unfortunately, we have 2.6 million separated families out there with 4 million children, so there will be an awful lot of boys who do not have a male role model in their lives. We really need to take that on board. It is a huge problem that is coming down the line and we need to do everything we can to get mentors and role models in front of those young boys. If we do not, they could quite easily end up on a path that we do not want them to take—and that will not just cost us with a society we do not want to belong to, but it will cost us a fortune to look after those boys once they have taken that wrong path.

I had hoped we would have got a little more from the Minister today. There are some easy wins there for us that will not cost us any money. For instance, if we just write to schools and say to them, “Please look at the gender attainment gap and whether it exists in your school. If it does not, fantastic. Well done. Come back to us and tell us what you are doing to make sure it does not. If it does, just acknowledge it.” We need to acknowledge that there is a gap there. It is said that the first sign of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. We cannot be in a position like that with our boys. If we let boys down at 11 years old, we will have a huge problem in future.

My hon. Friend Alexander Stafford and I mentioned one word: expectation. We should expect boys to do well. They can do well and with the right support they will do well. Once again, I thank everyone for coming. I am sorry for the Minister that, unfortunately, there are no Back-Bench Labour MPs here today. That is really disappointing. It just proves what they would do with working-class boys and boys as a whole if they did get into Government: not a lot. Unfortunately, we are where we are, but I thank everyone on this side.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the educational attainment of boys.