Britain’s education system is failing to tackle the “astonishing” underperformance of boys as feminists have made the topic “taboo”, the former head of the university admissions service has warned.
Mary Curnock Cook, who was chief executive of Ucas until last year, said the fact that boys are falling behind in education is a national scandal – yet it is such an “unfashionable” topic to discuss that it has become “normalised”.
Girls outperform boys in all aspects of education, from primary school to GCSEs and A-level results. Last year, 57 per cent of women went to university compared to 43 per cent of men, a gap that has widened significantly over the last decade.
“I just find it unacceptable to think that it’s OK to let boys fall further and further behind in education and allow the gap to get bigger,” Ms Curnock Cook said.
“Boys underachieving in education is becoming pretty normalised – everyone knows it yet no one is doing anything about it.” She said that other disparities in education – such as the gulf between rich and poor children – are narrowing, but the gap between boys and girls is getting wider.
“In about ten years’ time the gap between boys and girls will be worse than rich and poor. That is astonishing really.”
Ms Curnock Cook said that the debate about gender equality tends to be dominated by issues such as the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling.
“But those are work issues, not education issues,” she said. “Quite often initiatives to support men do meet derision from feminists.”
When attempts are made to address men’s issues, they are ridiculed and are met with the “wrath” of feminist and gender equality groups, she said.
James Knight was the only candidate to put his name forward to be men’s officer at the University of the West of England, and said he wanted to highlight male mental health issues.
However, the National Union of Students officers began a campaign against the role, and he pulled out after claiming he was harassed. The university said the post was suspended pending review.
Ms Curnock Cook praised the new higher education regulator for starting to highlight the underrepresentation of white working class boys at university, by listing them as a target group for outreach activities.
“But it’s too late to say ‘you have to admit more poor white boys to university’. The reason why their particular admission rate is lower is because they have fallen behind in education. It starts in the early years and gets worse over time,” she said.
Boys are also more likely to be expelled from school than girls, according to the Department for Education’s most recent figures, with the permanent exclusion rate for boys over three times higher than that for girls.
In the past five years, more than twice as many male university students committed suicide than their female peers, despite there being fewer male students.
Ms Curnock Cook will speak at a conference on Monday convened by the Men and Boys Coalition, a group of over 80 organisations, charities and academics.
The coalition will publish a series of recommendations to tackle the issues faced by men and boys, such as designing extra teaching resources for use in schools, designed specifically for boys.
Another proposal is to launch a nationwide “Take Your Son to University Day” campaign, modelled on the “Take Your Daughter To Work Day” that was launched in the early 1990s as a way to inform girls about career options.
Dan Bell, founder of the Men and Boys Coalition, said he hopes the conference will encourage greater dialogue about these issues.
“People do feel quite cautious about men and boys because it is seen as speaking up on behalf of a privileged class,” he said.
“When rigid gender roles were more enforced, the traditional masculine stereotype was that you just get on with it. Now we have moved to more awareness of gender issues – but it is mainly problems caused by men rather than the problems they have.”