GCSEs: Why closing the gender gap starts in EYFS

The gap between boys' and girls' GCSE and A level results can be resolved – but we need to take action in early years, argues Trefor Lloyd
7th December 2021, 12:00pm
GCSEs: Why closing the gender gap starts in EYFS
Trefor Lloyd


GCSEs: Why closing the gender gap starts in EYFS


Every August, when the GCSE and A level results are released, the national press shouts about schools "failing" boys.

The reality is that the difference in outcomes between girls and boys is relatively small, usually about 10 per cent. The reasons and solutions that follow in the media usually include needing more male role models in secondary schools or more favourable GCSE teaching methods for boys. 

These suggestions don't help anyone. And actually, although I wouldn't say that our schools "fail" male pupils, there are some clear gains to be made much, much earlier than secondary school. Yes, the attainment gap we see between boys and girls in Year 11 and Year 13 is also present in the early years foundation stage. So what measures should EYFS teachers put in place?

To seek some answers, at the Boys Development Project, we used data and teacher reports to track 20 underachieving boys from Reception to Year 6 to identify their common characteristics. 


We found that the three most dominant ones were: lower language and communication skills, a reluctance to take instructions from adults and too much emotion, resulting in regular outbursts. 

However, these characteristics don't have to become fixed. Indeed, neuroscience suggests our brains are soft-wired - plastic in fact. When a parent talks to a baby, they talk back. If a parent does not, the baby will not. Even later, if an adult loses an arm, their brain continues to send messages to the missing hand. After some months, the brain sends fewer messages, and then stops, as the brain adapts to the loss - brain plasticity at work. It takes longer but still happens. The key to this is that problems are easier to deal with the earlier they are addressed.

It's therefore important that in early years, we take steps to ensure boys have the best chance to succeed in education. And first and foremost, educators need to invest in children as soon as they walk through the door. Keep in mind the three dominant characteristics - language, refusal of instruction and regular outbursts - and if you spot boys displaying any of them, act straight away. So what should you do?

1. Language 

The strongest correlation with achievement is strong language and communication. If a child comes in struggling with language then they are likely to struggle with school generally. If a child has little vocabulary (whether English as an additional language (EAL) or not), is reluctant to use what they have and only speaks if spoken to, this will significantly hold them back. If they have reached four without language developing, the clock is ticking.

For most children, coded language works. They know that "good walking" means to walk, and "look how well Amelia is sitting" means sit like Amelia. However, coded language develops as a by-product of building a vocabulary and regularly using it, so for low verbal children, the code is unlikely to work. Clear and concise instructions such as "walk" and "sit" will be more effective.

If a child has little vocabulary, this will require everyday practice. Too often interventions are based on staff capacity, whereas brain plasticity tells us it has to be every day. Old school flashcards are ideal for this (and not phonics cards, they can come later). Build vocabulary and key stage 2 teachers will thank you for it.

If a child has vocabulary, but is reluctant to use it and maybe uses expressions, finger-pointing and noises to communicate, insist they use the words. If a child can get what they want or need in this way, they are not motivated to use words, so we have to insist. 

Parents are often part of this habit, knowing their child well enough to understand this non-verbal shorthand, so they will need support to develop language.

Of course, if a child has a speech and language issue, they will need a referral, but if it is a vocabulary or reluctance issue, this can be addressed within the classroom. In school, language and communication is the currency, so the more children have, the more learning-rich they will be.

2. Refusing instruction

If a child does not respond to an instruction when most of the class does, there is little point in repeating the instruction in the same way over and over. For low verbal children, tone matters more than words and fewer words are likely to be more effective.

When children are shouted at at home, they come into school and wait until someone shouts before they listen. When this doesn't happen, they don't take any notice. Others can be used to negotiating at home, and therefore want to "discuss" the instruction rather than follow it. "I'll just finish this and then come to the carpet", so they may have great language, but less compliance.

Changes in tone cut through both of these habits. Tone and speed even more so. A slower and deeper delivery will alert the child to the instruction being important. This doesn't mean louder, firmer or more emotional, but lower and slower. Adult tone of voice is an important indicator for children of how much they need to listen. For instance, if a child has not experienced changes in tone (only chat and shouting for example), they are often unable to gauge danger and risk, and can instead appear reckless. 

3. Regular outbursts 

Children in emotional households are often emotional. If they have absorbed emotion they are likely to show it. Children that are easily upset, irritable and regularly near to anger, require a response that brings their emotions down. If you respond to emotion with emotion, it is likely to push the child's emotions even higher. A response with very little emotion and delivered slowly and calmly is more likely to bring a similar response. Of course, if you have a child who regularly has outbursts, this will have to be addressed at the source, with parents. 

In fact, parents are a key part of all of the approaches above: if you are trying to change a habit in class, ask the parents to do the same at home. This doesn't mean messy conversations about parenting, but conversations about the child and the classroom. Almost all parents want their children to do well, so use starters such as: "Cameron doesn't always take instructions" and "Darren gets upset in class easily", followed by: "If you do this and we do this, he will get on better in class and with his learning".

Habits change with consistency and repetition, if parents and teachers are responding similarly, habits change quickly. And perhaps, if we start this journey as early as possible, media shouts of "failing our boys" may be a thing of the past.

Trefor Lloyd is a behaviour specialist, working in Southwark Primary Schools (South East London), and a founder of the Boys Development Project

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