Too many boys in England are getting a rotten deal in life. New research from Bristol University for Save the Children has concluded that, by the age of 5, many boys face a blighted future. They are twice as likely as girls to lack the basic literacy and communication skills to cope with the start of formal schooling.
Alarm bells should be ringing. It is well known that girls are out-performing boys at school and university. Less well understood has been the extent to which the learning gap opens up before children even start school. By the time they reach reception class, girls are already, on average, 11 percentage points ahead of boys.
Primary schools are unable to plug the learning deficit. Those boys who were behind at the age of 5 are four times more likely to be behind by the age of 11. In turn, these youngsters struggle to cope at secondary level, becoming disengaged and, not infrequently, disruptive. They do less well at GCSE and are more likely to struggle if they enter post-16 education. It they ever find a job, they have less chance of holding it down.
This dismal picture is not only bad for the individual boys, it is seriously bad for the country as a whole. A CBI survey just published indicates that 69 per cent of employers are concerned about a skills shortage, especially in terms of literacy and numeracy. They are also concerned about the attitudes and aptitudes of potential recruits.
Youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds who have fallen behind by the age of 5 are, too often, destined to walk the educational ‘green mile’ to poor qualifications, unemployability and hopelessness by the time they leave school. The next step can all to easily be a descent into total welfare dependency or, even, criminality. Prisons are full of young people who never mastered basic literacy and numeracy. Our society pays a high price for its illiterate and innumerate underclass.
The most remarkable finding of the Save the Children report, however, was that the under-performance of boys was not related to social class. By the age of 5 girls are ahead of boys in all 152 local council areas across England – both deprived and affluent.
According to the researchers, a major reason for this disparity is that parents spend more time with their daughters than with their sons on language-related activities such as nursery rhymes, songs and letter/word games. It seems that little girls also get more time with the crayons and the paint brush, as well as many more stickers, hugs and opportunities to talk about their feelings.
Many lads, alas, are left to get on with activities that are more physical than cerebral and, it is claimed, they miss out as a result. Given that the male brain differs in significant ways from the female brain, we should not underestimate the importance of physical activity for them. The reason why young girls are far more likely than boys to drop a ball thrown to them is all to do with the brain, too. But, of course, just as both sexes need to ‘exercise’ those parts of the brain that control physical activity so both boys and girls need to develop their capacity for literacy. What, then, is to be done?
Save the Children wants to see a graduate teacher in every nursery. However desirable this may be, it not clear how this will help boost literacy among boys rather than among girls.
If, as reported, the new Education Secretary, Justine Greening, is to launch a review of childcare provision, we can expect a recommendation that we simply need more nursery provision. This would be a mistake. More of the same is unlikely to close the gender gap amongst toddlers.
As hard as it may seem for the Government to digest, the ‘more is better’ argument is likely to fail. What all children need is the one thing that money cannot readily purchase. They need time with their parents. Nursery provision, by definition, cannot provide that time. Boys, as much as girls, need more ‘mother care’ and, indeed, more ‘dad care’. They need more intimacy and more interaction with their parents, not less. As Professor Jay Belsky has pointed out, this is especially true for children whose mums are providing comparatively poor mothering.
If the Government decides to spend more money on the crucial early years, it should be spent on tax breaks that encourage mums and/or dads to spend more time with their young children. For the long-term health of our society and for our economy, it would be money well spent.