Pivotal

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Dr Andy Hamilton, Susan Morgan, Dr Ken Harland

Dr Andy Hamilton, Susan Morgan, Dr Ken Harland

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Our education system in Northern Ireland is at a critical juncture. Following significant resources invested in two expert reviews – A Fair Start (2021) and Investing in a Better Future (2023) – actions are now required to bring about more equitable opportunities and outcomes, especially for the most disadvantaged learners. 

Taking Boys Seriously (TBS) is a longitudinal participatory action research study, spanning 17 years, that offers solutions and fresh perspectives on tackling stubborn and persistent trends of low–level academic attainment and progression for boys and young men from areas of high deprivation. 

The research, involving many hundreds of boys, teachers, and youth workers in schools, youth organisations, and EOTAS centres, seeks to better understand and respond to the needs of boys and young men experiencing what we have termed compounded educational disadvantage. This concept captures the multiple and overlapping systemic issues that create barriers for some boys and makes educational progress more difficult. In our own context of Northern Ireland these barriers include poverty, a selective education system, conflict legacies, and culturally inscribed normative masculinities. Amidst an abundance of negative stereotypes, TBS seeks to challenge and change deficit narratives to better represent the realities, perspectives, and authentic voices of adolescent boys. 

Gender Conscious Practice

At present gender is largely absent from the Northern Ireland curriculum. Boys and young men report limited opportunities in school to talk about adolescent transitions, masculinities, emotions, gender relationships, experiences and expectations of violence, and underlying conflict legacies that ripple through their communities including sectarianism, segregation, and residual paramilitarism. An educational system obsessed with academic outcomes squeezes out opportunities to engage with these social and developmental themes. Subsequently, many boys grappling with their identities and status perceive school as irrelevant and detached from their everyday lives. 

In response, a new gender conscious relational approach has been developed through our research. The approach focuses on establishing a culture that engages, motivates, and removes barriers for boys and young men in their learning. Exploring how masculinities are experienced and expressed by adolescent boys and using this to inform learning encounters is a key feature of the approach. This is supported by a set of relational principles directly developed and tested by boys and educators across formal and informal education. As our new work details, emphasis should be placed on re–balancing systems of power in classrooms and communities so that disenfranchised boys feel better seen, known, heard, and valued within educational and learning contexts. Despite widespread support and enthusiasm for the principles, boys and young men have reported an absence of these relational approaches in their school or only sporadic application by a handful of highly valued educators who were the ‘exception to the rule’. 

Taking Boys Seriously: tackling compounded educational disadvantage
Taking Boys Seriously: tackling compounded educational disadvantage

Gender–conscious approaches that embrace dialogue with boys, underpinned by relational principles, were found to be the crux of transformative experiences for adolescent boys leading to improved educational attendance, participation, attainment, aspirations, and wellbeing. This gender–conscious relational approach in work with boys and young men includes many transferable aspects for all learners. Additional considerations and strategies, however, are required for work with girls and young women, non–binary young people, trans young people, and the wider spectrum of gender and non–gendered identities.

Activating the educational ecosystem

More than three decades of educational research efforts and policy reforms have been targeted at disadvantaged boys both in local and international contexts. Our efforts to effect change at scale within a stratified system have been significantly strengthened by an evolving educational ecosystem. This has involved educators, boys, parents, policymakers, and local businesses each bringing their gift to dismantling compounded educational disadvantage and supporting boys to thrive. Progress has been made possible by a dynamic cross–sectoral steering group and the leadership of schools and youth organisations supporting holistic engagement with and implementation of the TBS principles

As the research expands, the research team continue working to bring the voices and experiences of adolescent boys, and the evidence base for a gender–conscious relational approach, to impact upon educational policy, pedagogy, and practice. Indicators of systemic change will include:

  • A targeted ecosystem approach where educational bodies, schools, higher education, youth organisations, families, and communities can locate themselves within an educational ecosystem that works collaboratively to support academic attainment, progression, and holistic outcomes for boys experiencing compounded educational disadvantage.
  • Embedding engagement with gender and masculinities in school and youth work curricula.
  • New and shared training modules across formal and informal education that enables educators to develop their own gender–conscious relational practice. 
  • A greater emphasis on metrics of success beyond GCSE and A–Level results including increased youth participation & youth voice; improved student–educator relationships; greater dialogue and peer learning; more inclusive and equitable gender relations.

An exciting opportunity exists for our educational ecosystem in Northern Ireland to be a leading model for tackling compounded educational disadvantage amongst boys and young men. Already colleagues in England are adopting the TBS principles and approach in the development of Boys Impact Hubs. We invite those working with the TBS principles or interested in supporting the development of gender–conscious relational education to connect with us as we map out and activate the educational ecosystem. 

Authors:

Dr Andy Hamilton is a Researcher Associate at Ulster University with the Taking Boys Seriously research 

Susan Morgan is an academic in Ulster University; she is the Principal Investigator for the Taking Boys Seriously research and a lecturer in Community Youth Work.

Dr Ken Harland is a Research Fellow at Ulster University with the Taking Boys Seriously research initiative

 

 

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