Some people find it difficult to discuss male underachievement (updated)

As someone with a long track record of interest in educational inequalities, I started my day by reading a new report on male underachievement. Published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, the report points to evidence from the UK of male underachievement in higher education entry, persistence, and final results. In particular, it presents evidence of underachievement among white working class boys. It then sets out a number of proposals for changing that situation.

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I found it a reasoned and evidence piece of work, though far from perfect. Aware that they were entering a minefield, the authors went to some trouble to point out that they were very comfortable with the growth of female participation in higher education, and they noted that there are significant differences between subjects; they discussed male/female salary differentials for graduates and criticised female under-representation in senior academic positions. They developed their proposals in a way that sought to avoid zero-sum political carve-ups.

However, that wasn’t enough to prevent an official from the National Union of Students using the highly-respected WONKHE blog to attack them for turning “a complex and nuanced issue into a battle of the sexes”. Even for a zero-sum world view, this ignores possible wars over ethnicity and class.

The WONKHE blog also contains a number of inaccuracies. For example, it claims that the HEPI report says that female school teachers are the main reason why boys do badly in school. The HEPI report says in terms that “the evidence on whether male teachers raise the achievement of boys is contradictory” – so it is pretty much the opposite of what the WONKHE blog says.

I’d idly started to wonder whether the blogger had actually read the report, or was drawing on another source. Then I spotted an attempt to smear the authors based on who they cited. The WONKHE blog says that on page 36 the report refers to an “un-named academic”, with a footnote referring the reader to a “disreputable source” by the name of Mike Buchanan, who is a leading figure in a campaigning group called “Justice for Men”.

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The blogger simply got this wrong, muddling two quite separate footnotes to two quite separate sentences. The reference to the “un named academic” (footnote 61) is to Joanna Williams, who is at the University of Kent. Mike Buchanan is not identified at all in the report, but footnote 60 does list three sources – one of them being Justice for Men etc – for the statement that “groups representing men’s interests claim to have found areas where hard evidence has been ignored”.

In itself, I don’t think this is that important, though I’d like WONKHE to correct the factual “errors”. The National Union of Students exists to defend its views, and sometimes it officers will do so in ways that they see as robust and others as underhand. What this episode does tell us, though, is that some people will try and stamp out any attempt whatsoever to discuss male educational performance.



It turns out that the report put out by HEPI in advance to sector stakeholders and media had three slightly broken footnotes which were corrected in the finished version which was published. One of those who received an advance copy was the NUS, whose vice-president produced the WONKHE blog post. You must judge for yourself whether a failure to twig that something was obviously wrong was the result of the author’s prejudice or something else. Muddled footnotes do not, though, explain the other inaccuracies.

Join the army? Life chances and social class among young men

I’ve been reflecting on education, class, young men, and the army. Fiona Aldridge, research officer with NIACE, triggered this off when she remarked that her study of rank and file soldiers had shown a population with the same educational characteristics of prisoners. This in turn made me brood on what we, as a society, expect from the lives of our young men.

Faced with Iraq or Afghanistan, or Iraq, it is all too easy to see military service as a high risk activity. And so it is – but is it any more risky than growing up male and working class in cities like Middlesbrough, Portsmouth, or Glasgow?

To be able to answer that question accurately, we’d need to produce age-standardised mortality rates for young males, broken down by class and educational background – and then compare civilians with soldiers. I am afraid that the results would be horrifying, and would suggest that serving on the front line is a lot safer than entering adult life at home.

This is a very uncomfortable thought. And it gets worse. Our society tends to blame lifestyle and family background for poor health; yet death rates among the young from such factors as smoking have fallen steadily in the last thirty years. But as Sir Harry Burns has pointed out, death rates from socially-related factors among young males in Scotland have risen in the last thirty years.

In general, higher death rates among young men result from violence, self-harm, alcohol and drugs. Suicide is the main cause of premature death amoung young men (who are about four times as likely to die by their own hand as young women). To these we can add driving a car, which for young men is far more likely to kill you than riding a bike. And of course there are suicides and substance abuse among soldiers as well, but apparently these are much less common than among the comparable population in civilian life.

So the bottom line seems to be that the army offers young working class males a much better future than does civilian life, at least in the short term, even in a time of conflict. We shouldn’t find this too surprising in a society like ours. After all, as Jay Winter has shown, life expectancy rose in Britain during both world wars; even for young men, the Great War was less lethal than peacetime.

I’m not advocating war rather than peace. What I am suggesting is that we need to see our supposedly peaceful civilian lives in a rather different way. Ordinary, everyday life is extremely harmful to a large and important part of our population, yet we seem to fetishise deaths in military service, and comfortably ignore the far higher toll of those who die while simply growing up.

Changing that will mean giving young men far more control over their own lives, and giving those lives some positive meaning. That will require a massive improvement in their educational outcomes, as well as realistic prospects of meaningful work in adult life.