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Ulster University, along with a network of educationalists, is undertaking a new trial to address the educational underachievement of boys in Northern Ireland by listening to the concerns of the students themselves and putting their voices front and centre.

Research from the Taking Boys Seriously programme shows that boys begin to fall behind educationally, early in life and the trial will see the implementation of 10 principles which seek to reverse this trend. These principles of ‘boys as relational learners’ emanate from TBS research and have been developed to inform teaching, practice, and policy.

Professor Brian Murphy, Director of Academic Business Development and responsible for Widening Participation at the University, explains:

“Boys and young men are seriously falling behind at every level of the education system. At Ulster University the participation rate for young men is now at 40% of our student population. Are we really taking boys’ education seriously with stats such as this? The problem starts early: the boy left behind becomes the young man excluded from a progressive and selective system. This is a social problem of compounded disadvantage. That’s why our research looks - for the first time in the sector - at formal and informal education through the prism of boys as relational learners. These are principles based on the voice of boys and their teachers of what works. We look forward, as an outcome of the Taking Boys Seriously conference, to setting up a series of case studies that trial more widely the principles of relational learning. I have no doubt that what works for boys will be good educationally for men, girls, women and the full spectrum of gender identities that society is now recognising.”

The trial was officially launched at the Ulster University ‘Taking Boys Seriously’ (TBS) conference, live streamed to 600 delegates representing the formal and informal education sectors across Northern Ireland and who will trial the principles in their learning environments.

TBS is the first conference to be hosted at the new Belfast Campus and streamed live from the Boardroom with guest speakers including: Dr. Mary Curnock Cook CBE, independent educationalist, former CEO of UCAS and currently Chair of Pearson Education, and the Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen, MLA, Ulster University Director of Community Engagement, Professor Duncan Morrow with ambitions for the future made by Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor Terri Scott.

Commenting on the conference Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, MLA stated:

“The subject matter of ‘Taking Boys Seriously’ is extremely relevant in the context of the work of the expert panel on educational underachievement and its recently published report A Fair Start.”

The conference is timely: decades of research identifies that boys and young men encounter systemic, sustained, and complex barriers impacting their educational outcomes. TBS research resonates closely with key areas stated in the recent Fair Start report in May on Educational Underachievement published by the Expert Panel for the Department for Education. The TBS principles strongly correlate with: Key Area 4 – Promoting a Whole Community Approach; and Key Area 5 - Maximising Boys’ Potential.

Research findings indicate that boys who experience compounded educational disadvantage thrive in an educational ecosystem that adopts relational principles, pedagogies and practices. The principles being launched for trial at the conference are intended to stimulate critical dialogue and effective case studies to support boys’ success in a variety of learning contexts.

A unique aspect of the TBS project is capturing the ways in which an informal youth work pedagogy and formal education approaches can support one another while making distinctive contributions to boys’ education and learning.

The TBS research is a collaboration between within the Widening Access and Participation department of Ulster University and the University Centre for Youth Research and Dialogue. It is endorsed by the Controlled Schools’ Support Council (CSSC), the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) and Youth Action Northern Ireland (YANI).

Gerry Campbell Chief Executive of CCMS commented:

“Since its establishment in 1989, the Council for Catholic maintained schools (CCMS) has always sought to improve educational outcomes for all children. CCMS remains dedicated to raising standards of achievement and academic excellence across all Catholic maintained schools and within that supports the drive to close the gap in performance between boys and girls.  It is encouraging to see so many of our schools engaging with initiatives like this and nurturing the boys’ attainment."

Mark Baker, Chief Executive of the Controlled Schools’ Support Council added:

“CSSC's vision is one that supports controlled schools in providing high quality education for children and young people, to enable them to learn, develop and grow together. We are committed to supporting controlled schools in addressing the barriers to learning and underachievement of all pupils, particularly boys impacted upon by social deprivation. It is critical that we continue to work together across sectors to improve educational outcomes for our children and young people.  The continuation of the Taking Boys Seriously partnership and engagement of schools in this work will help us to support schools and ensure a range of strategies are in place to support effective learning and achievement.”

The voice and experience of boys has been central to TBS from the outset. Reflecting on their educational experiences and what works for them, several young men added their voice to the conference via video. The boys, in their own words:

Jay (year 12) from Monkstown Boxing Club’s message to educators in relation to working with boys is:

“Make an effort, try to understand them, like try and put yourself in their shoes… just be more connected so like connect a lot more with them and just speak a lot more, just try and get into the good side and have a good relationship.”

Marcus (year 12) from Monkstown Boxing Club said:

“I would say to them don't judge a book by its cover. You would see all the pupils and you would just think he's not one of them ones that is good learning. But I was one of them pupils. I just didn't life my head in school 2nd year and 3rd year but see once I came into the boxing club in 5th year I just put my head down and then, you wouldn't know me about a year ago because I was totally different. What I would say to the conference is just give pupils a chance”

David (year 14) from Blessed Trinity College noted that:

“Boys always like to be appealed to. They don't just want to go into class sit there and be bored, sit and write and write and write. They want to be appealed to but you need to include everyone, because all boys are different. Yes there are a few of them like football and yes a few like other things but you need to appeal to that whole range of people who are within the class… appeal to them because I feel like if you appeal to them, they would be more enthusiastic to learn, to learn the subject and to learn because it's appealed to their qualities.”

Abdikani (year 11) from Holy Family Youth Club, reflecting on the support he has had from youth workers and teachers, said:

“Thanks for everything they're doing. Some people may be facing a hard time in real life at the moment so teachers and youth care workers they would try their best to make sure that you're feeling good. I would say thanks for what you're doing right now and then keep doing what you're doing.”