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Ulster University: Taking Boys Seriously

Taking Boys Seriously – The Next Steps (TBS2)

Outline of new 5-year research project by Ulster University

A host of previous studies have highlighted the long-standing issue of young men, particularly those from disadvantaged communities, under-achieving in school. Furthermore, this under-achievement is seen to impact HE participation levels among this group. Indeed, the most recent data from the NI Department of Education (DELNI, 2016)1 show a significant under-participation of young males from MDM Quintile 1 communities in HE. Moreover, the literature evidences that improvements in attainment and levels of HE participation among this group are unlikely without strategically managed interventions informed by robust research (Hunter et al., 2016)2.

In terms of addressing these issues, the broader literature also highlights: the crucial role of the HE sector in terms of developing innovation policies around widening access (Kelly and Cook, 2007)3; the value of youth work methodologies in supporting the educational and developmental needs of our target group (Jeffs and Smith, 2010)4; and the critical role of the community and the positive impact of effective tripartite relationships between schools, families and communities (Leitch et al., 2017)5.

The new research project will, thus, entail: a comprehensive literature review of school and community-based interventions and HE policies in Northern Ireland, the UK and beyond which seek to address the low attainment and low levels of HE participation among young males from socio-economically disadvantaged communities; the showcasing of existing best practice; a series of action research projects; and the piloting of new interventions.

The key purpose of the new (5 year) research project is to: (a) inform and improve policy, training and practice; and (b) build on the seminal study ‘Taking Boys Seriously’ by Ken Harland and Sam McCready (2012)6 which examined how particular strategies (e.g. in terms of their learning proclivities, key transition stages and their construction of masculine identities) might help address the under-achievement of young males from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Aims of the Research:

  1.     Inform policy, training and practice around the under-representation of young males from the lowest MDM Quintile in Higher Education.
  2.     Via evidence-based research, create new/modify existing models and showcase best practice in terms of interventions across schools, communities, youth work practice and HE sectors which seek to address under-achievement in schools and increase HE participation of young males from Quintile 1 communities.
  3.     Reconfigure and improve existing UU policies and protocols around widening access with particular focus on from Quintile 1 young males.

Objectives of the Research:

  1. Conduct and produce literature research of the most successful interventions in the UK, Ireland and beyond around raising levels of aspiration and attainment among young males from disadvantaged background and increasing their participation in HE.
  2. Design and conduct a mapping exercise of interventions already in place in Northern Irelandbetween schools, communities, youth work practice and families within Quintile 1 communities.
  3. Design and conduct an audit of UU faculties’ existing programmes, courses and pathwaysdesigned to address the under-representation of young males from Quintile 1 communities.
  4. Showcase best practice in schools & communities of the most successful interventions in terms of improving attainment and HE participation among our target group.
  5. Design and carry out, in collaboration with our agency, school and community partners, longitudinal interventions and parallel action-research projects across participating schools and communities.

Overarching Research Questions:

  1. What are the value, utility and interplay of individual, pedagogic and socio-cultural approaches in terms of increasing levels of attainment and HE participation among young males from Quintile 1 communities?
  2. What are the most effective models of best practice in schools and communities in terms of supporting the learning of young males from Quintile 1 communities?
  3. What are the most effective ways of supporting young males: (a) who are (or feel) disengaged from education; (b) during key stages 2 and 3, primary to post-primary, post-primary to HE/FE/employment; and (c) as they transition from ‘boys to men’ – e.g. their constructions of masculine identities?
  4. What are the most effective policies and initiatives around positive pupil-teacher relationships, the incorporation of youth work methodologies, linking school-based learning to boys’ real-life experiences, positive behaviour management, catch-up strategies for boys who fall behind, and mediating the impact of boys’ experiences of violence?
  5. What needs to be done within schools, communities, the HE sector and at policy level to increase the HE participation of young males from Quintile 1 communities?

The Research team:

The Ulster University TBS 2 research team consists of three academics with long-standing interest in: widening access to higher education; the application of youth work pedagogies and methodologies; addressing the deprivation – low attainment nexus; and encouraging learning in disadvantaged communities.

Professor Brian Murphy (Access, Digital and Distributed Learning)

Susan Morgan (School of Applied Social and Policy Studies)

Dr Erik Cownie (School of Applied Social and Policy Studies)


1) DELNI (2016) Access to Success, Second Annual Statement on Widening Participation in Higher Education – available at:

2) Hunter, L., Blackburn, G., Riddell, S. and Weedon, E. (2016) Access in Scotland: Access to higher education for people from less advantaged backgrounds in Scotland, Edinburgh: The Sutton Trust.

3) Kelly, K. and S. Cook (2007) Full-time Young Participation by Socio-Economic Class: A New Widening Participation Measure in Higher Education, DfES Research Report RR806.

4) Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (eds.) (2010) Youth Work Practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

5) Leitch, R., Hughes, J., Burns, S, and Cownie, E. (2017) Investigating Links in Attainment and Deprivation, Belfast: School of Education, Queens University Belfast: – available at:

6) Harland, K. and McCready, S. (2012) Taking Boys Seriously: a longitudinal study of adolescent male school-life experiences in Northern Ireland, Department of Education, Department of Justice and The Centre for Young Men’s Studies, University of Ulster.