The headline over the story on the Guardian’s education website on Thursday was stark. “Figures show poorest boys in England still let down by school system
,” it warned.
And few readers could be left in any doubt that England’s schools system was in some way deficient, based as the article was on figures showing that, this year, 53 per cent of boys on free school meals in England achieved the Government’s expected level in both maths and English Key Stage 2 Sats.
The statistics were described as “unacceptable” by Nick Gibb, schools minister, who said they showed how the poorest boys were being let down by the schools system and then set out how the government was planning to improve the situation by placing a greater emphasis on teaching phonics.
Yet what readers of the article are unlikely to know – and what Mr Gibb did not acknowledge in the reported comment - is that this is an international phenomenon.
And indeed, far from it being a problem specific to our education system, there was evidence this week that boys – if not specifically working-class boys – actually fare better in the UK, relative to girls, than they do elsewhere.
I was at a conference this week where an academic from Finland, speaking to explain her country’s success in the world’s best-known international testing study, pointed out that the underachievement of working class boys was a “problem for everyone”, in all countries, including Finland.
A closer look at the figures from the study, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s “PISA” (Programme for International Study Assessment) tests for 15-year-olds, is very interesting. For background, these tests assess pupils’ ability to apply their thinking skills in reading, maths and science. I have written more generally about how England performed here.
The results, released on Tuesday based on tests taken in 2009, show girls were ahead of boys in reading – the main tested subject - in all 34 OECD countries taking the tests. But in the UK, the gender gap in reading test performance was smaller than in almost all of them, at only 25 points. For context, the international average for performance in these tests has been set at 500 points, and the difference between the poorest and richest pupils, of which more below, runs at around 300 points.
In the reading tests, only Chile and the Netherlands had a smaller gender gap than the UK, with girls ahead of boys by 22 and 24 points respectively, while in the US and Mexico, the figure was also 25 points. Ironically, given its general success in producing an equitable education system, Finland shared the largest gap with Slovenia, at 55 points.
Boys in the UK also did very well, relative to girls, in the two other tested subjects of maths and science. In maths, boys in general performed better than girls in every tested country except Sweden. The UK had a larger performance gap in favour of boys – at 20 points – than any country except Belgium, Chile and the US.
In the science tests, where countries were evenly split between those where girls did better and those where boys did so, UK boys performed nine points better than UK girls on average. This was the third largest gap in favour of boys overall, with only the US and Denmark ahead.
Admittedly, some of these differences are small. But it is certainly not the case, if the test scores from PISA are any guide, that boys’ relatively poor performance is particularly pronounced in this country. If, then, boys are being failed by an education system, in terms of reading, they are being failed internationally, rather than simply because of anything particularly bad about the English regime, again if these test scores are any guide.
There is, then, plenty of international evidence that boys are more likely than girls to do poorly in reading tests.
In fact, if you dig more deeply into the PISA figures, there are some trends which might make any educator concerned about boys’ reading performance internationally sit up and take notice. For not only are girls ahead in this subject, they seem to be pulling further ahead as time goes by.
One of the tables in the vast amount of information produced for PISA shows how the percentage of low performers in reading – those scoring only level 1 in the six-point PISA scale – has changed over the nine years (2000-2009) that the tests have been running. This is analysed by gender.
In almost all countries where the number of these low performers has fallen since 2000, girls had made larger gains than boys. Similarly, even where the numbers doing badly in reading tests have actually grown – and around half of the countries tested are in this position – in most countries it is boys doing increasingly badly who are increasing the percentage of low-performers, rather than girls.
One set of statistics, I think, provides a big clue as to why this might be happening. As part of PISA, the OECD also asks the tested pupils a number of questions, including how often they read for pleasure.
The figures show how reading for pleasure among the tested pupils has declined in most of the tested countries, since 2000. Then, 60 per cent of boys and 77 per cent of girls said they read for enjoyment daily. In 2009, the figures were 54 and 74 per cent respectively, which represents a larger fall among boys. In almost every country where there has been a fall in reading for pleasure, the change has been faster among boys.
The focus in the Sats testing story was on the performance of boys eligible free school meals, so it is also worth considering the socio-economic dimension in international comparisons. And here, I have to confess I’ve not been able to find, in the PISA data, a figure which considers gender differences in test scores according to pupils’ material backgrounds.
However, it is possible to look at statistics on the gap overall, across all pupils whether boys or girls, between children who come from the poorest backgrounds, and those who come from the richest.
The OECD constructs an index of economic, social and cultural status for each pupil taking the test. This is calculated according to a survey which takes into account each child’s parents’ occupations, parental education levels and possessions in the family home.
It is then possible to compare the performance of children from the most “well-off” backgrounds, as measured by this index, in the reading tests compared to those from the least well-off.
So, I compared the performance of children in the five per cent most well-off homes in each country with those in the five per cent least well-off.
The first thing to note is that the differences in reading scores, in all countries, between these two groups of pupils – well-off and not-so-well-off are, unsurprisingly, huge. Average pupil reading performance in the OECD countries tested by PISA vary by 114 points, from 425 in Mexico to 539 in Korea, where 500 was originally set as the international average.
But the difference within each country, between the performance in reading of those from the best-off homes, and those from the least, is never less than 230 points. Overall, internationally, children from the five per cent best-off homes in each country scored 639 points on average. Among those from the five per cent worst-off homes, the average reading score was 334.
And how does the UK fare on these measures? Well, its gap between rich and poor pupils is not great, but it is not the worst in the world, either. It ranks 13th out of 32 in my unofficial league table showing the gap in reading performance between those from well-off backgrounds and those in the poorest. The points gap in the UK was 312 on the measure outlined above, compared to 366 in Israel, 346 in France and 342 in Luxembourg. The countries with the smallest gaps were Portugal on 236, Korea on 258 and Turkey on 271. And children from the poorest homes in the UK perform, as a group in these league tables, right in the middle of the national average when considered against their peers internationally. Those from its richest homes perform just above the international average.
I apologise for this blizzard of stats. But it just goes to show that, when you hear that the “education system” is letting down boys, or poor pupils, or both, it is as well to recognise that we are, as countries, as the saying goes, largely all in this together.