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How Can we get more boys interested in university?

Until the late 1960s males made up around 75% of the student population in the UK. The picture has changed dramatically and young women are now 35% more likely to go to university than their male counterparts. There is debate among policy makers and academics on how to address the current underachievement of males, but how can schools and university outreach teams tackle the problem from the grassroots?

The gap between rich and poor will be eclipsed by the gap between male and female achievement within a decade, as Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive of UCAS states in her foreword to the Higher Education Policy Institute report Boys to Men: The underachievement of young men in higher education- and how to start tackling it. The report suggests that weak performance and under-representation of disadvantaged groups in general can only be addressed by dealing with the differences in achievement between the sexes.

The imbalance between men and women attending university in the last 50 years could be because many female dominated vocations such as nursing didn’t require a degree in the past but now do, which could have led to increased numbers of women at university. Or perhaps the transition from O levels to GCSEs may have improved females’ educational performance.

Nonetheless males’ current performance across education is declining, and tackling low attainment levels early on is imperative to overall achievement.

The recent ministerial letter to the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education has asked universities to “improve participation amongst young white males from lower socio-economic groups, whose participation is particularly poor”. Although the NEON report About a Boy: The challenges in widening access to higher education for white males from disadvantaged backgrounds shows that while organisations are committed to widening access, few institutions have specific activities in place that target young males. Outreach teams may argue that they take an inclusive approach to widening access to boys, as holding male-only events and projects may categorise and label them.

So how much can raising aspirations through university outreach activity impact on boys’ attitudes towards their future and university? We interviewed a Norfolk teacher who gave us their candid opinion on the aspirations and attainment of boys:

What opinions or attitudes do your young male students have towards university?

Many see university as an option but for some males it is an unachievable aim based on their background. New financial pressures are pricing some out of university with only the more affluent able to attend. The cost of attending university to the chances of being able to pay debts off is now a key factor in decisions. It seems the new changes mean the more disadvantaged students will continue to suffer whilst others with a greater wealth will continue to dominate. Boys now see university as not viable and will often opt for a career in something they feel they can actually do well in.

What do you think are the main barriers to young males engaging with university?

Often the main barriers for students come from their socio-economic background and the general family experience or lack of in the past. Boys in particular tend to see university as unachievable and from our experience it comes from student’s interests in more manual/technological careers, ie construction and mechanics. One other barrier for some is the fear of failure and the need to avoid it from student’s psychological point of view.

What techniques or strategies if any do you use in your school to increase aspirations, confidence or attainment amongst young males?

We have very good links with local businesses who act as mentors for a number of students. This is to ensure students have the confidence to be successful in the wider world and in particular in higher and further education. Teachers offer and run a wide selection of clubs and revision sessions for students to build confidence and impact attainment, and boys in particular are targeted in certain areas where we know the need is greater. We promote trips and visits for students as well as having aspiration as one of our core values which is embedded into our culture.

Where/how should Higher Education outreach work be focused to try to change some of these perceptions/attitudes/barriers?

I feel a blend of students being invited to universities, and universities coming into schools, are key to people’s attitude and perceptions. I think a really useful tool would be to give boys a real life experience of university which focuses on the whole experience and not just the academic route. Ideas such as independence, budgeting and life skills would be beneficial to break some of the barriers. As soon as boys see academic barriers they often switch off.

In 2013, disadvantaged pupils were the lowest-attaining at GCSE with just 32% getting five or more A*-Cs, why do you think this is, in your experience?

I personally feel that family background and a young child’s upbringing is essentially the key part of this, schools work tirelessly trying to close the gap between different groups and access to resources, opportunities and family enthusiasm outside of school is important. Disadvantaged students will not often receive the same opportunities as students from more affluent backgrounds.

What role do teachers, peers and family members have as influencers on students’ goals, ambitions and confidence?

Teachers have a huge responsibility to influence students, not just academically but to develop the whole person for the wider world. Teachers provide consistency, support, guidance and commitment to students and their futures. Peers will also show these same traits and friendship groups are often formed based on shared interests and common goals. Family should be the most important tool that students have – they create the values of students from birth and their influence, if positive, will give students the grounding needed for peers, teachers and others to develop and build on.

So it seems attainment at school as well as aspirations to succeed are heavily linked to pupils’ upbringing and family life. This is something that school staff and university outreach teams are more than clued up on, although engaging with parents and changing perceptions is a challenge in itself. Aversion to debt is another area highlighted here; an on-going aim in widening access and although it has been four years since the fee increase, year 8 students are clearly aware that they would graduate with more debt than previous students.

In an attempt to encourage social mobility amongst boys in Norfolk, UEA runs a project called Sports for Boys which links males’ interest in sport with academic subjects like science and medicine. They take part in new and unique sports like archery and fencing, have a tour of the campus then take part in academic taster sessions. Across the UK, sport has been used to successfully hook the interest of boys but we acknowledge a need for wider activity for those not into sports.

Unsurprisingly one teacher on a Sports for Boys event stated that most of the boys who came hadn’t even been out of their small Norfolk coastal town, 54% of boys who came to Sports for Boys in 2015 didn’t know anyone who had been to university, and only 28% were seriously thinking about going to uni.
After the event, 63% of attendees said that SFB had made them more likely to go to university. They also commented:

The university is lovely and life here is amazing”
“University leads to more opportunities”
“There’s more to university than I thought”
“University is a cool place to make friends and get ready for real life”

So events like this can have a positive effect and clearly demystify university to the attendees, but this alone is not enough to ultimately widen access to university. A longitudinal approach to engaging with disadvantaged students is key, so they don’t lose their enthusiasm for university as a goal.

“Boys need to feel positive about their chances and see the challenge as achievable, thus avoiding failure.” (Norfolk Academy Teacher)

Posted by Hannah Robinson on Tue, 14 Feb 2017



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Hannah is an Outreach Officer at the University of East Anglia, working with Norfolk schools to increase the aspirations and attainment of young people while dispelling myths about HE. She joined the Recruitment and Outreach team in 2012 after completing her degree in Media Studies and working in Marketing and Communications for the Student Union. Hannah organises educational outreach events on campus, leads on strategy for secondary schools, working particularly close with schools in West Norfolk.

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