William Wragg is the Conservative MP for Hazel Grove.
“With the recent educational focus on grammar schools, let us not forget that educationally success or failure can be determined much earlier than age 11.”
As a member of the Education Select Committee and a former primary school teacher, I’ve heard evidence and seen first-hand that boys are underachieving through school, compared to their female peers.
In July this year, both Kings College London and Save the Children published separate reports highlighting the gender gap in attainment in our education system.
Kings College London found that white, working-class boys are less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university, and that some white working class boys feel forced to conceal their identity in order navigate the world of Higher Education.
I was pleased to hear our new Prime Minister, Theresa May describing this issue as a ‘burning injustice’ and a ‘difficult truth’ – these words must now be followed with action.
A large part of achievement in adulthood is to do with a child’s early chances in life. With the recent educational focus on grammar schools, let us not forget that educationally success or failure can be determined much earlier than age 11.
If a child falls behind by age five, then their attainment at school is likely to be poor, which accounts for much of the problem of low participation in higher education later in life.
Save the Children’s report The Lost Boys highlighted the potentially devastating and lifelong consequences for boys in England who start school significantly trailing girls in basic early language skills.
It found boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to have fallen behind by the time they start school, and that being behind on the first day of school is often an indicator that these boys will stay behind, potentially for life. Many struggle to catch up, and in the longer term, struggling in the early years damages their life chances, employment prospects and health outcomes.
I was saddened to learn from Save the Children that in my own constituency of Hazel Grove, 27 per cent of boys failed to meet expected standards of language and communication skills at age five last year. This means they started school struggling to speak in full sentences, fully engage with their peers, or follow even simple instructions from their teachers.
The stark reality is that boys are now nearly twice as likely as girls to fall behind in their early years – and boys in poverty are trailing the most, with a staggering 40 per cent falling behind.
So if we believe that all children, regardless of their sex, background or circumstances, should be afforded the best possible start in life, what is to be done about it?
Both reports emphasised the critical role that parents, the home environment, and quality nursery education play in encouraging boys to be ready to learn at school.
Boys are less likely to participate in activities such as story-telling and nursery rhymes which develop their language skills. They are also less likely to learn to stay focused on a task or have the concentration, motivation, and self-confidence to learn. And so more must be done to overcome these barriers.
Good quality early years education can close the early education gender gap, giving both boys and girls equal opportunity to fulfil their potential. Early Years Teachers ensure that both boys and girls participate equally in early reading and play-related activities, which develop their skills and keep them interested in books, reading, talking, and learning.
I am sure that the new Education Secretary will continue her predecessor’s work of improving the quality of early education. The introduction of the Early Years Foundation Stage is a good start.
It sets the standards for the provision of learning, development and care for children from birth to age five that all registered early years providers must follow. Eighty-six per cent of early years providers are currently rated good or outstanding by Ofsted but we cannot afford to be complacent.
New research launched this month by Save the Children shows that a child who attends a nursery with an Early Years Teacher at age three does almost ten per cent better in early development at the beginning of school. Yet only two in five private, voluntary, and independent nurseries currently employ an Early Years Teacher.
In fact recruitment of Early Years Teachers is stalling – in 2014/15 there were only 860 applicants for Early Years Teachers programmes, 1,140 candidates short of the Department for Education’s target of 2,000 and down by 1,467 applicants from 2013/14.
The Government should therefore work to support the development of a well-qualified nursery workforce, with a qualified early years teacher in every nursery, starting in areas with the largest numbers of poor children first. Only two in five private, voluntary and independent nurseries currently employ any early years teacher, so there is still some way to go.
Under this Government great strides have been made in equality in the world of adults. There has been welcome progress on closing the gender pay gap, seeing more women in senior positions in business, and raising representation of black, minority and ethnic minorities in both education and business.
However at the same time we risk leaving some groups behind, and white boys from poorer backgrounds are one of them.
What’s needed now is a co-ordinated effort by the Department for Education, the Department for Work & Pensions, local authorities, nursery providers, school leaders and parents to raise the attainment of this group by boosting quality early education, in order to make sure that all children, but particularly working class boys whom we are failing by the current system, have the critical language skills to act as a foundation for not just their schooling, but life-long success.