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Breaking the Attainment and Higher Education Participation Barrier for Boys

As new members of Men and Boys Coalition, we are pleased to present here the first of an envisioned series of blogs to share the development and subsequent findings of a new research project by Ulster University around the low attainment and HE under-representation of young males from MDM (multiple deprivation measure) Quintile 1 communities: ‘Taking Boys Seriously – the next steps (TBS 2) Increasing Attainment, Raising Aspiration and Promoting Positive Attitudes’.

According to the most recent data from UCAS (2016)1, Northern Ireland boasts the highest entry rates to higher education (HE) amongst the four UK regions for young people aged 18 (43%). However, several troubling statistics lurk beneath this headline, particularly in terms of young males from the most disadvantaged communities. The attainment indices and HE participation rates for young people in Northern Ireland, particularly boys, from MDM Quintile 1 communities, indicate that many are under-qualified and/or uninspired to undertake 3rd level education. Of course, these issues are not unique to Northern Ireland. However, as this short paper makes clear, they are often more pronounced here than in other regions of the UK.

A host of previous studies carried out within the UK and globally have concluded that there is a positive correlation between deprivation and educational underachievement (McNally & Blanden, 2006;(2) Cassen & Kingdon, 2007;(3) Raffo et al, 2007;(4) INTO, 2011)(5). The scale and impact of this nexus is highlighted by the Child Poverty Action Group (2016)(6) who attest: that in 2015 there were 3.9 million children (28% of all UK children) living in poverty in the UK; and that such levels of child poverty have marked and long-lasting effects – citing that by the time young people undertake GCSEs, there was a 28% gap between young people receiving free school meals (FSM) and non-FSM pupils in terms of attaining 5 A*-C GCSE grades.

Moreover, the latest OECD economic survey (2017)(7) show that current trajectories of child poverty levels in the UK threaten to increase the number of children whose disadvantaged background affects their educational chances. For example, the most recent IFS projections show that relative child poverty could increase to around 36% by 2021-22 (Hood and Waters, 2017)(8). These same data also show that: more than 100,000 children in Northern Ireland currently live in poverty; relative child poverty (AHC) in Northern Ireland remains the highest among the UK regions; and that current projections indicate Northern Ireland will retain this dubious distinction.

The impact of socio-economic status on attainment in Northern Ireland is outlined in the latest ‘Peace Monitoring Report’ (Wilson, 2016: 99)(9) which: highlights a ‘gross educational divide by social class, as indicated by two proxies: whether the child attends a grammar or non-grammar secondary and whether s/he is a recipient of free school meals’; and shows how ‘non-grammar pupils are only about half as likely to gain five GCSEs (A*-C), including English and Mathematics, as their grammar counterparts; a ratio falling to a little over a third if one considers only those non-grammar pupils entitled to free school meals (ibid)’.

In terms of young adults in Northern Ireland, Wilson’s (2016) report paints an equally depressing picture and highlights: an unemployment rate of 18.5% among 18-to-24-year-olds in Northern Ireland – well above the UK youth-unemployment rate of 11.9%; and that among 16-to-24-year-olds, 17.1% are not in employment, education or training (NEET) – again the highest prevalence of the four UK jurisdictions (England 12.7%; Scotland 12.4% and Wales 16.3%).  Moreover, and in the context of our new research project, Wilson (2016) also shows that in the most disadvantaged Quintile of areas of Northern Ireland, the NEET rate is 33%.

The data portrays evidence of a persistent gender gap in educational attainment between boys and girls – and young men and young women – across Northern Ireland. Essentially, young men tend to under-attain, particularly those from MDM Quintile 1 communities (Leitch et al., 2017)(10). This is well known. It has been evident for over a decade. It is present at all stages of the system because the issues begin early and lock people of potential out of opportunity – young boys in particular.

The statistics for entry to higher education from Northern Ireland are stark: young males were 30% less likely than young females to enter in 2015: just over 50% of young female school leavers entered compared to 35% of young males – again, it is important to state that this under-representation is more acute among young males from MDM Quintile 1 communities (UCAS, 2016).

In Northern Ireland we are not alone in educational under-attainment of boys but we do have a deep-rooted problem. UCAS (2016) reported 27.2% of men, compared to 36.8% women, gained admission in 2016 across the UK. The Irish Higher Education Authority on the other hand, reported a small gap of 2% for undergraduates for 2015/16 and a greater one of 10% for postgraduates. Similarly, concerns around the under-representation of young people from Quintile 1 communities in HE are reflected in recent UK studies (e.g. Hunter et al., 2016;(11) Boliver et al., 2017)(12). Indeed, an interim report by the Commission on Widening Access (Scottish Government, 2015: 8)(13) highlighted the scale of inequality in HE and argued that this ‘is unfair, damaging and unsustainable’ and that there was a ‘moral, social and economic duty to achieve equality of access.’

With specific reference to low attainment and HE participation among MDM Quintile 1 boys, the literature attests that the problem is rooted deeply in male cultures and wider social processes. A complex convergence of prior attainment, socioeconomic disadvantage, and systemic biases are at play – which will be more fully examined in future blogs. Put simply: boys from areas of severe unmet social need are being left behind. In these areas, young male participation rates for Northern Ireland are a poor fraction of the population generally and an order of magnitude below that which would be expected from a completely fair system.

In this space, Ulster University is a major provider of social mobility. It has a near equitable socioeconomic profile of students and near equitable achievements (good honours classifications) across the same profile. Each Quintile of participation is close to parity (20%) with the population generally. Despite this success, male participation rates in Quintile 1 (and especially in decile 1) are the most difficult to affect because of the under-lying educational attainment issues. For example, according to Ulster University’s (2016)(14)  Widening Access and Participation Plan 2016-17, young males from Decile 1 communities account for only 1.3% of the total student cohort – where a proportionate share would be around 5%.

It is for these reasons that Ulster University is embarking on Taking Boys Seriously: a long-term, action-research initiativeIt follows a seminal study by the University in 2012 (15)(Harland and McCready) which cited implications for teaching, supporting and working with boys; and identified Year 10 – boys aged 14 – as a pivotal intervention stage.

The new research will also be guided by the (NI) Department of Education’s (2013)(16) policy document ‘Priorities for Youth’ which outlines a set of priorities within a (youth work and education) policy framework and reflects the importance of Raising Standards for All, Closing the Performance Gap, and Increasing Access and Equality. The new research will thus entail longitudinal and action research projects with partner schools and communities. Key will be evaluation of school and community-based interventions which promote better connections between the educational, family, and community contexts of young boys as well as their social, emotional and developmental needs to become confident and successful young men.

The two over-arching aims of this new research project are: (a) to inform policy, training and practice around the under-representation of young males from MDM Quintile 1 communities in Higher Education; and (b) to create new/modify existing models and showcase best practice in terms of strategically managed (and concerted) interventions across schools, communities, youth work practice and HE sectors which seek to address under-achievement in schools, raise educational and career aspiration, and increase HE participation of young males from MDM Quintile 1 communities.

In future blogs, we will provide project updates and outline some of the key themes and issues arising from our research.

Contact the research team:

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

Professor Brian Murphy (Director Access, Digital and Distributed Learning)

Susan Morgan (School of Applied Social and Policy Studies)


1) UCAS (2016) End of Cycle Report:

2) McNally, S. and Blanden, J. (2006) ‘Child poverty and educational outcomes’: Poverty 123, Winter 2006: Child Poverty Action Group.

3) Cassen, R. and Kingdon, G. (2007) Tackling low educational achievement. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

4) Raffo, C., Dyson, A., Gunter, H., Hall, D., Jones, L. and Kalambouka, A. (2007): Education and poverty – A critical review of theory, policy and practice. Joseph Rowntree Foundation & University of Manchester.

5) INTO (2011): Impact Report, March 2011:

6) Child Poverty Action Group (2016) Child Poverty Statistics in the UK:

7) OECD Economic Survey (UK):

8) Hood, A. and Waters, T. (2017), “Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2016-17 to 2021-22”, Institute for Fiscal Studies, Report (R127), March 2017.

9) Wilson, R. (2016) Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report – Number Four, Belfast: Community Relations Council.

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

11) 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, The Sutton Trust: Edinburgh.

12) Boliver, V., Crawford, C., Powell, M. and Craige, W. (2017) Admissions in Context: The use of contextual information by leading universities, London: The Sutton Trust.

13) Scottish Government. (2015) Commission on Widening Access: Interim Report. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

14) Ulster University (2016) Widening Access and Participation Plan 2016-17:

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

16) Department of Education (2013) Priorities for Youth, Belfast: Department of Education: