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Early Diagnosis of Educational Barriers for Boys

In this second blog prepared for the Men and Boys Coalition, we outline three key educational barriers for boys: deficits in school readiness; boys being unprepared for the primary to post-primary transition; and boys falling behind at school, feeling they can’t catch up and subsequently becoming dispirited. We also argue here that the early identification of these barriers is crucial in terms of successfully addressing them.

Our Taking Boys Seriously (TBS) research is founded on the proposition that most children of any background are innately capable of high educational attainment. Many, however, have reduced opportunities and raised socio-economic barriers to personal and professional development. Unfortunately, the barriers can set in early – particularly for many working-class boys.

From pre-school to primary and post-primary, the barriers compound poor attainment all the way through the system. Emotional support, in concert with parents and local communities, is a key antidote to the dampening of enthusiasm, aspiration and self-esteem.

It is self-evident that early diagnosis is critical to reducing barriers, and there are many models of best practice to address barriers.  Securing the evidence to support adoption of policy and teacher training on barriers for boys is key.

The original ‘Taking Boys Seriously’ research by Ulster University (Harland and McCready, 2012)[1] identified 11 factors which impact on boys’ learning.

  1. Early identification of learning barriers
  2. Gender specific approaches
  3. Age specific issues
  4. Construction of masculine identities
  5. Transitions during adolescence
  6. Relationships with teachers
  7. Youth work methodologies
  8. Educational environment
  9. Links between their education and real-life experiences
  10. Positive behaviour policy
  11. Experiences of violence.

We have identified three common learning barriers from the original (2012) study and the broader literature which present early in the various transition stages of education.

  1. Deficits in school readiness (i.e. as boys enter primary 1)
  2. Boys being unprepared for the primary to post-primary transition (i.e. in Years 7 & 8)
  3. Boys falling behind (particularly around Years 9 & 10) and feeling they could not catch up with their peers.

The first – deficits in school readiness – is, of course, an important aspect of quality assured Pre-school provision such as in the Early Years programme and Nursery (Whitebread and Coltman, 2015)[2].  However, as reported in a recent Northern Ireland study (Leitch et al, 2017: 49-50)[3], variation in the public resourcing of pre-school education, arising from lack of either policy stability or equitable resource distribution, can lead to a disproportionate impact for families domiciled in areas of significant unmet social need.

Deficits in school readiness can also concern Special Educational Needs. This applies at various Key Stages of education. Lack of teacher awareness and under-detection do further compound the problem (Peer and Reid, 2016)[4].  Leitch et al. (2017: 41-42) focused on lack of funding as part of the problem. Citing qualitative data reflecting concern on speed of response and adequacy of provision, support was claimed to be “patchy” and “inconsistent”; and a significant backlog in referrals was noted.

The second – transition from primary to post-primary – has in the last 20 years been widely recognised. Typical aspects are:

  • Becoming (suddenly) the youngest cohort
  • Anticipation and fear of bullying
  • New academic and behavioural expectations (on the part of schools)
  • Change of familiar learning environment
  • Change in the learning relationship from the single classroom teacher to a range of tutors across subject fields (Symonds and Galton, 2014)[5].

In the Taking Boys Seriously (2012) research, boys who were unprepared for the primary to post-primary transition and who were carrying literacy and numeracy deficits were found to be at further raised risk of compounded under-attainment. For certain boys (Harland and McCready 2012 and Neal et al., 2016)[6], persistent anxiety during the transition can be a profound impediment to adjustment and attainment. Most Primary and Post-Primary schools do emphasise support during transition. Good practice examples are:

  • Improved communication between feeder and receiver schools
  • Regular familiarisation visits for primary-7 pupils to ‘big schools’
  • Provision of buddy systems between pre- and post-transition pupils
  • Dedicated playground space or times for Year-8 pupils to ensure they have uncontested social space at their new school.

The third barrier – boys feeling they could not catch up educationally – is highlighted as most significant by the Taking Boys Seriously (2012) study. Low esteem and disengagement ensued, arising from perceptions of failure. These problems were seen as most acute in Key Stage 3 – a critical period when consideration of GCSE selection is required. Furthermore, boys affected routinely connected failure at this level as being the determinant of their future life and career opportunities.

In response, the study made recommendations of:

  • Early identification of boys who begin to fall behind
  • Targeted interventions for boys who are not doing well or not enjoying school
  • Individualised learning packages and catch-up strategies
  • Additional one-to-one teacher support
  • Alternative academic support, particularly during preparation for Key Stage 3 and GCSE exams.

More broadly, the 2012 report maintains that coping strategies should be informed by an understanding of what motivates boys; and that this should begin at primary level and address partnership with parents and local communities. It further identified emotional support – especially in Years 10-12 – as a key antidote to the dampening of enthusiasm, aspiration and self-esteem.

Of course, across schools and early education there are many individual models of best practice which seek to address these the three barriers to learning. The problem for education and teacher training development would appear to be a consistent and evidentiary basis to support interventions as part of policy.

In the new research, Taking Boys Seriously: the next steps (TBS 2), some of our key objectives are to: capture best practice around learning barriers; highlight the mechanisms which enable early diagnosis of problems; disseminate these models and mechanisms; and encourage their broader implementation.

Future blogs will explore areas such as: effective school-based and community-based interventions, school structures, gendered learning proclivities, and the construction of masculine identities (and their impact on boys’ attitude to education).

In the meantime, if you would like to contact the research team in relation to our new investigation please do so at the contact details below:

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] Harland, K. and McCready, S. (2012) Taking Boys Seriously: A longitudinal study of adolescent male school-life experiences. Belfast: Centre for Young Men’s Studies. Available at:

[2] Whitebread, D. and Coltman, P. (2015) Teaching and learning in the early years. London: Routledge.

[3] Leitch, R., Hughes, J., Burns, S, and Cownie, E. (2017) Investigating Links in Attainment and Deprivation (Volume 3), Belfast: School of Education, Queens University Belfast:

[4] Peer, L. and Reid, G. (2016) Special educational needs: a guide for inclusive practice. London: Sage.

[5] Symonds, J.E. and Galton, M. (2014) ‘Moving to the next school at age 10–14 years: An international review of psychological development at school transition’. Review of Education, 2(1), pp.1-27.

[6] Neal, S., Rice, F., Ng-Knight, T., Riglin, L. and Frederickson, N. (2016) ‘Exploring the longitudinal association between interventions to support the transition to secondary school and child anxiety’, Journal of Adolescence, 50, pp.31-43.