We must convince boys that the brainy don't have to be 'boffins'

20th April 2007 at 01:00
Sir Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust, which aims to improve social mobility through education

This is always an exciting and rewarding time for the Sutton Trust. Some of the UK's most prestigious universities are now sifting through applications from students who wish to attend our university summer schools. This will be the 10th year that the week-long tasters of academic life have run. But the one disappointment will be the relatively low application rate from boys. This year, as in recent years, they made up just 31 per cent of the total.

It is not the first time males have emerged as the inferior sex in education. We are no longer shocked to hear that girls outperform boys in GCSEs, A-levels and degree results. The under-performance of boys interconnects with broader inequalities that continue to blight the country. Some argue that the recent expansion of universities has been largely a female middle-class phenomenon. Certainly, research has indicated that the gender gap in attainment is most acute for children from the poorest backgrounds. The country's high drop-out rate at 16 is due mainly to the exodus from schools and colleges of working-class boys.

So what can be done? This is a multi-faceted issue, and we don't pretend to have all the answers. But there are a few things the Government and others could do.

First, we need to consider how children are tested. The way we measure achievement has changed. There is now more continuous assessment and coursework - which tend to favour girls - and less weight on exams, in which boys usually do better. More widely, we need to look at complementing measures of achievement, such as A-levels and GCSEs, with a new measure of potential. Research suggests that the American Sat, used by universities in the United States, can identify talent among boys who are underperforming.

We are co-funding with the Government and others a trial of the Sat among 10,000 students in the UK to determine whether it could be useful here, too.

Second, we must think hard about introducing more targeted interventions to address inequalities at key junctures in children's education. Our summer schools are an example of how successful such projects can be. Work carried out by the Boston Consulting Group for the Trust shows that raising pupils'

aspirations and helping them to get into leading universities generates huge financial benefits for them as individuals and society.

Third, we should roll out more initiatives like the Into University project in west London, which we sponsor. This aims to inspire pupils from the age of nine towards university studies, getting in early before the "macho"

teenage years when higher education may not seem so cool.

We all know there are deep-rooted cultural forces at play in the underperformance of boys. For many, academic success is the very thing to avoid to gain respect from their friends. Research in the US has shown that children from less privileged backgrounds can be alienated by those around them if they are perceived to be doing well at school.

It is a complex issue, but I am sure the lack of male role-models plays a part, whether it is the absence of fathers involved in education, the lack of male teachers at primary school or the negative connotations towards education among the sport and music stars that boys look up to. Is it any coincidence that those seen as brainy are labelled "boffins" (think of the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger), or that education is downplayed wherever possible (how many of today's popular bands publicise the fact that they met at university?) During our summer schools in June and July, perhaps we can garner views from the boys who are present. Why did they decide to come along when so many of their peers did not? Who knows, perhaps next year - our 11th - we could invite David Walliams or Matt Lucas to meet the students to show that academic success (both are graduates of Bristol) and street cred can go hand in hand.

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