'I know it can seem a bit alien to be campaigning for boys as a disadvantaged group, but...'
When you think of campaigning for equality, what comes to mind? Equal rights for women, an end to discrimination against ethnic minority groups, opposing homophobic bullying?
Probably all of the above – and they should, rightly, be priorities – but an equally pressing priority when it comes to educational achievement is campaigning to improve the performance of boys, particularly white boys from disadvantaged communities.
David Willetts first put his finger on the problem, in his role as universities minister, in an interview with The Independent four years ago. When it came to widening participation in higher education, he argued, white working-class boys should be treated as a disadvantaged group.
The evidence is incontrovertable, and growing with time. The latest manifestation of it comes in a pamphlet published by the Higher Education Policy Institute entitled "Boys To Men – the underachievement of young men in higher education and how to start tackling it".
In a foreword, Mary Curnock Cook, head of Ucas, argues: "Boys are performing worse than girls across primary, secondary and higher education... and the situation is getting worse. On current trends, the gap between rich and poor will be eclipsed by the gap between males and females within a decade."
A girl born today, for instance, is 75 per cent more likely to go to university than a boy, if current trends continue. In January 2016, 94,000 fewer men had applied to university than women. Only 8.9 per cent of white men on free school meals went on to university in 2015 compared with 43.8 per cent of Asian women not on free school meals.
Boys, it seems, are also more likely to drop out of university than girls – eight per cent compared with six per cent.
An interesting statistic brought to my attention some time ago showed that improved performance in GCSEs and A levels over the past two decades was entirely down to girls bettering themselves. The performance of boys remained static. I thought, at the time, that it seemed to undermine the arguments that there had been massive grade inflation as it would have meant that boys had become less intelligent over the years.
Getting more boys into university
So what's to be done? Well, the report has come up with some imaginative solutions: a "Take Your Sons To University" day where schools, colleges and employers are encouraged to give time off for young men to savour the atmosphere of a university in the hope of getting more of them to apply. The day would be modelled on a "Take Your Daughters To Work" day launched some time ago to persuade girls to consider a wider range of careers.
More money directed for widening-participation initiatives, it adds, should be focused on persuading young men – particularly those from white disadvantaged communities – to apply. Only two higher education institutions outside teacher training have set targets to increase the number of men they enrol, the research adds.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has got the message and has instructed institutions to focus on the recruitment of more men.
I can understand that it still seems a bit alien to be campaigning for boys as a disadvantaged group – especially as there is still work to be done, particularly in campaigning for equal pay for young women which, despite their superior qualifications, they have still not achieved.
Eyebrows would have been raised if you had tried to do it in the 1960s or 70s.
However, if the UK is to punch its weight as an economic nation in the world of the 21st century, Nicky Morgan may well have to focus more attention, as part of her role as minister for equality, on the problems of young boys in school.
Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and has been writing about education for more than three decades