Uh oh, you are using an old web browser that we no longer support. Some of this website's features may not work correctly because of this. Learn about updating to a more modern browser here.

Skip To Content

Boys nearly twice as likely to fall behind girls at school

Monday, 18 July 2016

New report by Save the Children reveals full extent of gender gap crisis in England.

Save the Children has today launched a powerful new report laying bare the potentially devastating and lifelong consequences for boys in England who start school significantly trailing girls in basic early language skills.

Boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to have fallen behind by the time they start school, with the leading children’s charity projecting that if the results of the past ten years are repeated then nearly 1 million boys will be at risk over the next decade unless quality early years education is in place across England.

The report highlights that last year alone, 80,000 boys in England started reception class struggling to speak a full sentence or follow simple instructions. Based on newly commissioned research from the University of Bristol, ‘The Lost Boys: How boys are falling behind in their early years’ finds that being behind on the first day of school is often an indicator that these boys will stay behind, potentially for life.

Nowhere in England are boys outperforming girls in early language skills, or even coming close. The gender gap is at its most extreme in St. Helen’s, Merseyside, where boys started primary school over 17 percentage points behind their female peers. In Rutland, the local authority with one of the lowest levels of poverty in England, the gender gap is still 14 percentage points, well above the 11 percentage point national average. The smallest gap was in affluent Richmond-upon-Thames which still showed a 5 percentage point gap.

While this underperformance is an issue for all boys across all ethnicities and social groups, it is boys in poverty who are falling the furthest behind. The stark reality is that a staggering 40% of the poorest five year old boys are falling below the expected standard in early language and communication.

The report reveals that those already behind at five are four times more likely to fall below expected standards of reading by the end of primary school than those who started school on track. Many struggle to catch up, do well at school or succeed in the world of work. Boys’ social skills, relationships and behaviour are also affected when they fall behind at five. In the longer term, struggling in the early years damages their life chances, employment prospects and health outcomes.

The report states that contributing factors identified include children’s experiences at home, at nursery and in the community. It also highlighted that boys are less likely to participate in activities such as story-telling and nursery rhymes which both develop language. They are also less likely to learn to stay focused on a task or have the concentration, motivation and self-confidence to learn. These are crucial in helping children to read and write.

The research identifies a silver bullet, in good quality early years education, which has the biggest impact in preventing children from falling behind and therefore closing the early gender gap, giving both boys and girls equal opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Save the Children is calling on the UK government to support the development of a well-qualified nursery workforce, with a qualified early years teacher in every nursery, starting in areas with large numbers of poor children first. Early years teachers help to identify the children who are falling behind and support them to catch up.

Gareth Jenkins, Director of UK Poverty, Save the Children said:

“Every child deserves the best start in life. But in England, too many children, especially boys, are slipping under the radar without the support they need to reach their potential. They’re falling behind before they even get to school and that puts their life chances at risk. In 2016, this is unacceptable. A whole generation of boys is being failed”

Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, a Clinical Psychologist and expert from Channel Four’s “Secret Life of Four Year Olds” programme says:

“For many boys who start school behind, a life time of lost potential is the outcome. However, it doesn’t have to be like this. With quality early education, the gap could be significantly reduced.

“Quality childcare, with a focus on early learning, can offer a genuine chance for children to catch up. And it really doesn’t have to be complicated – simple word games, encouragement and reading is often all it takes to make a lifetime of difference.”

Local authorities with the highest gender divide:

  LA % boys not met standard % girls not met standard gender gap
1 St. Helens 31% 14% 17.3%
2 South Tyneside 33% 17% 15.9%
3 Darlington 30% 15% 15.9%
4 Lambeth 32% 16% 15.7%
5 Tower Hamlets 32% 17% 15.3%
6 Manchester 33% 18% 15.1%
7 Sandwell 33% 18% 15.0%
8 Tameside 34% 19% 14.9%
9 Blackburn with Darwen 37% 22% 14.8%
10 Salford 31% 16% 14.6%

Local authorities with the lowest gender divide:

  LA % boys not met standard % girls not met standard gender gap
1 Richmond Upon Thames 11% 6% 5.4%
2 Calderdale 22% 15% 6.8%
3 North Somerset 16% 9% 7.2%
4 Lewisham 17% 9% 7.7%
5 Kingston Upon Thames 15% 7% 8.0%
6 Hampshire 17% 9% 8.3%
=7 Hartlepool 23% 15% 8.5%
=7 Havering 21% 13% 8.5%
8 Bath & North East Somerset 21% 13% 8.7%
=9 Wokingham 17% 8% 8.8%
=9 Bournemouth 21% 12% 8.8%
=9 Buckinghamshire 21% 12% 8.8%
=9 Bury 25% 16% 8.8%
=10 Gateshead 18% 9% 8.9%
=10 Derby 26% 17% 8.9%



For more information, interviews, images, case studies or filming opportunities, please contact the press team at media@savethechildren.org.uk, 0207 012 6841, or 07831 650409 for out of hours.

B-roll featuring Dr Elizabeth Kilbey speaking with four year old twins is available upon request.

About Save the Children

Save the Children believes every child deserves a future. In the UK and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share.