Dr John Barry & Professor Gijsbert Stoet
It is now well known that boys in school and at university do not do as well as girls. The same is seen around the world. Therefore, a recently educational UNESCO report (2018) argued that in order to achieve true gender equality, it is important not to forget about the boys! Here we ask what specific contributions psychologists can make to help boys succeed in education.
Some quick facts about boys and education first
The academic underperformance of boys cuts across all social strata and geographies (Curnock-Cook, 2016). It starts early and continues through all educational levels (Stoet & Yang, 2016). Apart from the loss of potential economic benefits of a better educated workforce (OECD, 2013), educational underachievement can have personal costs to individuals and to society, especially when underachievement turns into delinquency and crime (Shader, 2004).
Boys are roughly twice as likely as girls to have special educational needs (SENs) such as dyslexia (Department for Education, 2016) and four more times likely to suffer from stuttering (Halpern, 2012). The DoE figures for SEN do not include colour blindness, which is about 16 times more common in boys, and may interfere with educational achievement and career choice (Todd, 2018). Further, boys display far more frequently difficult behaviour at school, which can be related to underlying attentional problems, such as ADHD (DuPaul & Stoner, 2014).
Boys’ reading and writing skills are delayed and continue to be less good than those of girls throughout education. For example, in the last GCSE results found 12.7% of girls and 5.6% of boys got the highest grade (A) in English. Some educators suggest that boys should not be made to learn to read as early as girls, because early failure may be damaging to self-confidence (Curtis, 2007).
The educational disadvantages of boys increment over time. The result is that more boys than girls drop out from school, and far fewer boys ultimately participate in the A levels or go to university. In the UK in 2015, for every 10 boys who entered university, 13 girls did so too. On top of this discrepancy in entry figures, young men are more likely to drop out of university before finishing their degree. The earlier children drop out from school, the more serious the problems (Stearns & Glennie, 2006).
A key question is: what do boys do when they drop out of education? Do they go down the route of apprenticeships, or other potentially gainful paths? Until 2016/7, boys took up fewer apprenticeships than girls did. In a rare glimmer of hope in the story of boys’ educational trajectory, this pattern changed slightly for the first time in 2016/7, when boys took up slightly more (52.5%) apprenticeships than girls did [see here]. Nonetheless, youth unemployment among 16-24 year olds is higher among boys than girls [see here].
What can psychologists do to help?
For a start, we need more research to discover the causes and cures for this issue. There are many open questions, but we do know that one of the problems is video gaming: extreme gaming is far more common among boys and interferes with study (Gentile et al., 2011). Therefore, psychologists should help parents and educators to effectively reduce the time students spend on gaming. It might help psychologists to know that boys may express distress and depression differently than girls, and males might use withdrawing to engage in online games as a way of masking depression or coping with it (Liddon et al, 2017).
Would more male teachers help? This is another topic of much discussion. Some suggest that male teachers might be better able to relate to boys and male-typical behaviours (e.g. boys’ restless energy), and boys might be more co-operative for a male teacher. That said, direct benefits of male teachers for boys and female teachers for girls have been disputed (for a review, see Stoet & Yang, 2016), making this another area where further research is needed.
Psychologists need to be aware that educational underachievement is not only distressing for boys, but it can lead to problems for their families and others. This is not only in terms of unemployment and crime, but there is even the problem that highly educated women may seek an equally well educated partner (Birger, 2015).
Some authors on the subject (e.g. Jóhannesson et al., 2009) appear to believe that the issue of boys underachievement is not important because there are more men in top positions in academia. This is not a reasonable argument, as others pointed out (e.g. Brown, 2016). After all a large group of boys should not lack support because a small group of males get the top jobs.
We suggest making solutions problem-specific rather than gender-specific. For example, additional resources to improve writing skills should focus on all children with writing problems. There are more such boys than girls, but we should not exclude girls with poor writing skills. This way, whatever solutions we find to help boys will also help girls, because enough girls are faced with similar issues of dyslexia, online gaming addiction etc.
Regardless of who is helped, the situation is one that needs our attention, because, as an African proverb puts it: if we do not initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. As psychologists, we have the skills and abilities to make a hugely positive difference to society. What we need more that that right now is the vision and willingness to apply ourselves to the problem.
About the authors
Dr John Barry is a chartered psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network. http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/male-psychology-network/about-us/
Professor Gijsbert Stoet studies sex differences in cognition, learning, and education at Leeds Beckett University http://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/staff/professor-gijsbert-stoet/
Vote for a Male Psychology of the BPS between 7th May and 20th June.
Details are here http://www.malepsychology.org.uk/male-psychology-network/vote-for-a-male-psychology-section/
Brown, B (2016). ‘Whose Lives Do Gender Equality Policies Improve?’ Presentation to UCL Women, 11th May 2016. Slides available on the world wide web https://www.slideshare.net/BelindaBrown10/slideshelf Accessed 25th April 2018
Curnock-Cook, M. (2016) in Hillman, N., & Robinson, N. (2016), Higher Education Policy Institute report.
Curtis, P. (2007). Under-sevens ‘too young to learn to read’. In The Guardian, 22nd November 2007. Retrieved from
DuPaul, G.J. & Stoner, G. (2014). ADHD in the schools. Assessment and intervention strategies. New York, NY: Guildford Press.
Halpern, D. F. (2012). Sex differences in cognitive abilities (4th ed.). New York: Psychology press.
Gentile, D. A., Choo, H., Liau, A., Sim, T., Li, D., Fung, D., & Khoo, A. (2011). Pathological video
game use among youths: a two-year longitudinal study. Pediatrics, 127(2), e319- e329.
Shader, M. (2004). Risk Factors for Delinquency: An Overview. US Dept of Justice. Retrieved via
Stearns, E., & Glennie, E.J. (2006). When and why dropouts leave school. Youth and Society, 38(1), 29-57.
Stoet, G. & Yang, J. (2016). The boy problem in education and a 10-point proposal to do something about it. New Male Studies, 5, 17-35.
Todd, B (2018). Children’s colour blindness is not a black and white issue. BPS Developmental Psychology Section Blog. Accessed online https://www1.bps.org.uk/networks-and-communities/member-microsite/developmental-psychology-section/blog 26th April 2018
UNESCO (2018). Achieving gender equality in education: don’t forget the boys. Global Education Monitoring Report. Paris: UNESCO.