July 28, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
An important new study of British pre-school children finds boys to be significantly underperforming girls in every area of the country, in every socio-economic category, in every ethnicity and race. The report sounds the alarm calling the consequences for boys “potentially devastating and lifelong.” Here’s an article on the report (Save the Children, 7/18/16).
The report was produced by Save the Children, the largest children’s charitable organization in the country. It delves into the possible causes of boys’ problems in school but, amazingly, never inquires whether fatherlessness might have anything to do with them. That omission, plus one more, qualify as gross negligence on the part of the researchers. Worse, I suspect it was calculated. The report’s recommendation for how to fix the problem is for massive governmental expenditure on pre-school education. That of course ignores what may well be the real cause – fatherlessness – and urges a “solution” that may make the problem worse, at taxpayer expense.
Boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to have fallen behind by the time they start school, with the leading children’s charity projecting that if the results of the past ten years are repeated then nearly 1 million boys will be at risk over the next decade unless quality early years education is in place across England.
The report highlights that last year alone, 80,000 boys in England started reception class struggling to speak a full sentence or follow simple instructions. Based on newly commissioned research from the University of Bristol, ‘The Lost Boys: How boys are falling behind in their early years’ finds that being behind on the first day of school is often an indicator that these boys will stay behind, potentially for life.
That’s true in all segments of the British population.
Nowhere in England are boys outperforming girls in early language skills, or even coming close. The gender gap is at its most extreme in St. Helen’s, Merseyside, where boys started primary school over 17 percentage points behind their female peers. In Rutland, the local authority with one of the lowest levels of poverty in England, the gender gap is still 14 percentage points, well above the 11 percentage point national average. The smallest gap was in affluent Richmond-upon-Thames which still showed a 5 percentage point gap.
While this underperformance is an issue for all boys across all ethnicities and social groups, it is boys in poverty who are falling the furthest behind. The stark reality is that a staggering 40% of the poorest five year old boys are falling below the expected standard in early language and communication.
Given that, the usual suspects don’t look to be the cause of the problem. Poverty, race and ethnicity are often associated with underperformance in education, but not all those kids are doing poorly; they’re mostly boys. So how do the researchers explain why girls from poor families outperform boys from the same families? It’s not obvious that they do. And why do boys from affluent areas perform almost as well as girls? The report appears to be silent on that as well.
From my vantage point, the answer to those questions may well be the problem of fatherlessness. We know, for example, that boys suffer more from the loss of a father than do girls. We also know that, in the United States at least, the higher a mother’s education, the lower the likelihood that she’ll raise a child without a father. Those two facts strongly suggest an answer to both the questions I asked above. It explains why poverty, race and ethnicity aren’t the causes of boys’ underperformance. It also suggests why boys from wealthier families perform almost as well as girls.
And when we consider that what was studied was achievement in areas of literacy, where boys routinely underperform girls, we may be close to understanding what caused the results found by Save the Children. But the report offers no data on family structure.
Another potential problem the report fails to address is the possibility that boys are being asked to perform basic literacy tasks before they’re able. The simple fact is that boys’ brains tend to mature more slowly in the early years than do girls’ brains. That means boys aren’t ready to perform certain types of tasks required to do well in school. The inevitable result is that boys find school to be an unpleasant, unrewarding place to be. That of course affects their motivation, a fact recorded by the study.
[The report] also highlighted that boys are less likely to participate in activities such as story-telling and nursery rhymes which both develop language. They are also less likely to learn to stay focused on a task or have the concentration, motivation and self-confidence to learn.
In his book “Boys Adrift,” Dr. Leonard Sax reported on the fascinating work being done by the National Institute of Mental Health. In 2007, researchers there reported on data they’d been accumulating since the early 90s from MRIs of children’s brains. Essentially, they’d been watching the brains of children develop over the years. They discovered what behavioral experts had observed for many years – that, in some areas, boys’ brains develop more slowly than do girls’. Here’s what Sax had to say about the NIMH study:
It now appears that the language areas of the brain in many five-year-old boys look like the language areas of the brain of the average three-and-a-half-year-old girl….
Trying to teach a five-year-old boy to learn to read and write may be just as inappropriate as it would be to try to teach three-year-old girls to read and write…
Asking five-year-old boys to learn to read – when they’d rather be running around or playing games – may be the worst possible introduction to school, at least for some boys.
And yet that is what seems to be happening in the U.K. They seem to be attempting to force a one-size-fits-all educational system on girls and boys. Demanding that boys be able to read and write as well as girls at age five, when their brains aren’t ready to do so, frustrates the boys and alienates them from school and the process of learning.
So what is the “solution” offered by Save the Children? Not to back off and let boys develop at their own pace, but to double down.
Save the Children is calling on the UK government to support the development of a well-qualified nursery workforce, with a qualified early years teacher in every nursery, starting in areas with large numbers of poor children first.
I’m all for qualified teachers as long as they’re not trying to force feed reading and writing on boys who aren’t ready to learn those things.
By the way, the issue is important. The effects of poor early educational experiences can last a lifetime.
The report reveals that those already behind at five are four times more likely to fall below expected standards of reading by the end of primary school than those who started school on track. Many struggle to catch up, do well at school or succeed in the world of work. Boys’ social skills, relationships and behaviour are also affected when they fall behind at five. In the longer term, struggling in the early years damages their life chances, employment prospects and health outcomes.
There is much brave talk about how important this problem is.
“Every child deserves the best start in life. But in England, too many children, especially boys, are slipping under the radar without the support they need to reach their potential. They’re falling behind before they even get to school and that puts their life chances at risk. In 2016, this is unacceptable. A whole generation of boys is being failed.”
It’s all very well to call the situation “unacceptable,” but is it? When the major children’s charity in the U.K. fails to even consider the impact of fatherlessness on boys and assumes, against the evidence, that boys are as ready as girls to read and write at age five, we have to wonder. Is it the problem these people are concerned about or their solution? Is the whole point to get government to do what it does poorly while bypassing families that, when left intact, do the job of preparing children for school pretty well?
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