Over the last three decades, boys in the UK have been falling ever further behind girls at school; in state schools especially. Trevor Phillips, among others, has argued that this poses a great threat to the national economy at a time when we need to be improving our performance and output.
There have been various explanations put forward for this – ranging from changes in teaching methods, and the growing proportions of women teachers depriving boys of male ‘role models’, to ideas about boys becoming prey to ‘cultures of masculinity’ which are hostile to education.
But there has been little attention given to the wider social context and in particular the way in which many men no longer have important roles in families. Boys may just be responding to that, and feeling that they are redundant. Researchers have been reluctant to plough that furrow for fear of being seen as antagonistic to working women. But now that women themselves are increasingly valuing male providers again, there is no good reason to rule out this line of enquiry.
Recent research in the US has suggested that boys growing up in sub-cultures which emphasise the importance to family wellbeing of having a male main economic provider are more motivated at school and achieve better results. MfT plans to replicate this work in the UK environment. There may be lessons that educational policymakers need to learn about being more responsive to general public opinion and market needs.