Addressing the Underperformance of Males in our Educational System

CCEA Symposium

On Tuesday 20th March 2018, CCEA facilitated a half day symposium at Stranmillis University College, Belfast, bringing together around 30 practitioners, academics, policy makers and stakeholders to look at the underachievement of boys in Northern Ireland.

Those attending heard from Dr. Erik Cownie, Ulster University, and Professor Ruth Leitch, QUB, who provided an overview of current research in this field.  They also heard from schools that have developed strategies and evidence-based practice in different areas to address the issue of male underperformance, including Belfast Boys’ Model School and Malone College. 

There were also opportunities for discussion; feedback was received as follows.

Why gaps exist

There are broader socio-economic factors behind educational inequalities which are more than solely gender issues.  High expectations are critical in developing aspiration in young people in schools; low expectation makes a significant contribution to the widening gaps in education attainment.  Mental health concerns, particularly lack of resilience in young people, are factors.

What has been effective in addressing the issue

Enjoyment and relevance to their own lives and community experience are important factors in motivating young people, especially boys.  Teaching and learning needs to be meaningful.  Pupil voice is an important factor in motivating young people, as is inspiring pupils to achieve by showing them the possible outcomes of success at school.  Literacy and oracy are also vitally important.  Involvement of parents is important, as well as a strong sense of school community with a focus on pastoral needs.  Interdisciplinary approaches (such as that of the Early Years Transformation Programme) are also required in order for boys to be ‘school ready’.

CCEA’s existing curriculum, assessment and qualifications frameworks at post-primary

The premise, design and rationale of the curriculum at Key Stage 3 are positive.  Implementation is sometimes difficult at Key Stage 4 due to exam pressures and a focus on outcomes.  Schools may focus less on the skills embedded in the curriculum, which may appeal more to boys.

All boys should have opportunities to reach their maximum potential, regardless of background.  Boys need a clear purpose to everything they do, so that it is worth the effort expended.

Applied subjects may better suit some boys’ learning style preferences and examinations may be more challenging for boys from backgrounds where the environment at home may not be not conducive to studying or additional support.  Some boys may have difficulty accessing examination questions due to lower levels of literacy.  However, boys can respond to the structured approach of external examinations. 

Potential actions/next steps

CCEA could consider the portfolio of qualifications on offer ensuring that they support routes into training, employment and apprenticeships. CCEA should encourage development of skills and the statutory ‘other skills’ should be promoted and clearly visible within Key Stage 4.

Principals would welcome opportunities to get together to discuss and share good practice.  CCEA and other key bodies could have a strategic role in facilitating future events that encourage peer support, linking where possible with Learning Leaders and Shared Education initiatives.

Next Steps

CCEA will:

  • further explore the points raised re supporting skills development at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 with a number of schools that attended the symposium;
  • work with other bodies on the suggestion to bring principals together to share practice and to solve common problems; and
  • consider how lessons from this session may be integrated into Shared Education courses and development opportunities.


Boys and Underachievement - Ruth Kennedy, CCEA
1.76 MB - uploaded 01-08-2018