The education system is failing white working class boys. It’s not news and it’s not peculiar to the UK – different studies across the wider world have been saying it in academic language for a long time. But Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, made new headlines with her clearly expressed views this week.

Perhaps not surprisingly The Telegraph chose to emphasise the negative, leading with what could be interpreted as a jibe at misguided liberal policies:

“White working class boys are being left behind because of the “negative impact” of a focus on ethnic minorities and women, a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet has said.” The Telegraph

What she actually said is set in the context of an extraordinary interview with The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. The shadow education secretary, who left school, pregnant, at 16, is driven with a personal mission to tackle a dysfunctional system which perpetuates inequality. “For Rayner,” writes Nelson, “this is the point about welfare: failure to support people leads to greater economic and social cost later. She’s almost evangelical while talking about it, presenting her life story as proof.”

So the comment about white working class boys has to be understood in the context of a wider social inequity and political failure.

‘They have not been able to adapt,’ says Rayner of white working class boys. ‘Culturally, we are not telling them that they need to learn and they need to aspire. They are under the impression that they don’t need to push themselves, in the way that disadvantaged groups had to before.’ The Spectator

That rings a bell.

Is it all girls and all boys?

Once again it’s well worth digging through the archives of the David Hume Institute for evidence. And we don’t have to dig very far. Here’s the Irish academic, Emer Smyth of the Economic & Social Research Institute, Dublin, talking to a room full of (if they’ll excuse me saying so) middle class achievers in Edinburgh last year.

The talk, Gender and education: why do girls do better than boys? at the Royal Society of Edinburgh in April 2017, also presented extra evidence on Scotland gathered by Linda Croxford and Cathy Howieson. And although Emer Smyth’s main focus was on the apparently increasing gender gap she also provides some fascinating and troubling insight into the persistent underachievement of working class boys.

It’s an enlightening talk and worth listening to in full. Nothing in education is simple. Beware easy conclusions and stereotypes. Laddishness is a popular explanation for boys (of any social class) lagging behind girls in school but it’s far from the whole answer. Beware single solutions (there’s no evidence that boys respond better to comics than novels). Above all, beware sweeping generalisations about gender.

“Is it all girls and all boys?” asks Emer Smyth. “Research shows that it’s really certain groups of boys that fare badly rather than all boys.”

In other words, says the academic, “It’s misdirected to be putting all the attention on ‘failing boys’ because the scale of gender difference is much less than in terms of class or ethnicity.”

Boys bad, girls good?

The evidence for that is shown in a series of slides; some intriguing, some startlingly stark. There’s graphic evidence of girls surging ahead of boys in reading from an early age. And note how working class girls are doing better than middle class boys! There’s the growing reminder that working class boys (colour not specified) are being left far behind.

Emer Smyth also warns of the tendency to see ‘boys bad, girls good’. Punishing boys for acting out in the classroom is likely to be counterproductive, especially for disadvantaged boys.  But it’s not all about what happens in the classroom. Perhaps one of the most startling slides is the one that shows the impact of after-school activities.

Pay more policy attention to the provision of out of school learning especially for more disadvantaged groups of boys – a) to find an activity that will involve them but b) to overcome the economic barrier that excludes many of them.

Outside school, girls are far more likely than boys to engage in reading for pleasure, music, dance and drama. Middle class parents are far more likely than working class parents to have the time and money to ensure that they do. But the studies show that working class girls also take part in creative activities outside the classroom with a positive pay-off both at school and in their personal development.

A slide showing massive gap between girls and boys in cultural activities outside school.

This Irish study asked questions drawn from Growing Up In Scotland

Policy and practice

No single, simple solutions then. It’s the quality of teaching and the school climate that provides the best chances for both girls and boys. But it’s also how school relates to the world around it. Emer Smyth’s presentation ends with a brief but powerful section on policy and practice which could provide essential ammunition for Angela Rayner south of the border – and for John Swinney in Scotland too. Social equity – not gender – should be the guiding principle.

Given that the poorest outcomes are for working class boys we have to see gender and social equity as inter-related. Any policy to help the disadvantaged must acknowledge that is often the most disadvantaged boys: Professor Emer Smyth

[See and hear also Social Mobility and Poverty in Scotland an extract of the newly topical presentation on Elite Scotland by Alan Milburn who recently resigned from the Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty. In his 2015 talk he also comments on the urgent need to invest in teachers, schools and extra curricular activities for the benefit of the most disadvantaged students in Scotland.]

This commentary is published on Sceptical Scot as part of a series on the links between poverty, inequality and stalled social mobility 

Graph showing working class boys lag far behind middle and working class girls – and middle class boys catching up with girls by school leaving age.

Note how middle class boys ‘catch up’ by the time they leave school. Working class boys are far behind working class girls.