Save the Children found boys are twice as likely as girls to be trailing by the time they start school, with a lack of basic language skills being key to the problem.
The charity reports that ‘a whole generation of boys is being failed’ and claims a ‘silver bullet’ would be to invest in a high-quality early years workforce, beginning in the poorest areas.
The global children’s organisation says that without a change of course, nearly one million boys are at risk of falling behind over the coming decade.
In its report, ‘The lost boys: How boys are falling behind in their early years’, the charity highlights how last year alone, ‘80,000 boys in England started reception class struggling to speak a full sentence or follow simple instructions’.
The document, based on new research commissioned from the University of Bristol, claims that being behind on the first day of school is often an indicator that children will stay behind, potentially for life.
Nowhere in England are boys outperforming girls in early language skills, or even coming close, the report shows.
One reason the charity suggests for the difference is 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.
Underperformance is an issue for boys across ethnicities and socioeconomic types, but poverty is a clear factor.
Source: Save the Children
The gender gap is at its most extreme in St Helen’s, Merseyside, which ranks high on poverty indicators.
There, boys started primary school over 17 percentage points behind their female peers.
Rutland, which has some of the lowest poverty levels in England, the gap is still 14 points, much wider than the 11-point national average.
The smallest difference between the sexes was in affluent Richmond-upon-Thames, which has a five-point gap.
Source: Save the Children
A staggering 40 per cent of the poorest five-year-old boys are falling below the expected standard in early language and communication.
Gareth Jenkins, director of UK Poverty at the charity, 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.’
According to the charity, evidence shows children who are not reaching the desired standard when they start school, are four times more likely to miss reading targets at the end of primary school.
Such children are disadvantaged in the competitive world of work, relationships, and are more likely to suffer poor health outcomes.
The charity claims a high quality workforce with a qualified early years teacher in every nursery, would tackle the problem, with such staff better able to work with the children who need more support.
Investment should be prioritised in areas with large numbers of poor children, it suggests.
The complexity of the problem was highlighted by a recent Ofsted report which found the quality across all early years settings has never been higher – with 86 per cent of nurseries, pre-schools and childminders rated good or outstanding.
However, the regulator said the poorest children are not benefitting from improvements, and highlighted how in the most disadvantaged areas, 18 per cent of children attend settings rated ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’, compared to 8 per cent in more prosperous areas.
The watchdog said in many cases this could be attributed to weak leadership at town hall and setting-level.
A 2013 report by the London School of Economics said children in poorer areas have better access to quality settings, but the concentration of disadvantage was the major factor.
Commenting on the charity’s findings, Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, a clinical psychologist who appears as an expert on Channel 4’s ‘Secret Life of Four Year Olds’ series, said that quality early learning offers ‘a genuine chance for children to catch up.
‘And it really doesn’t have to be complicated,’ added Dr Kilby, ‘simple word games, encouragement and reading is often all it takes to make a lifetime of difference.’
The NDNA’s director of quality and workforce development, Stella Ziolkowski, said the report was further evidence of the need for investment in early years ‘to reduce inequalities’.
Ms Ziolkowski said it was ‘vital’ that government funding is enough to enable employers to reward staff with competitive wages, and reverse the recruitment crisis.
The association has also been working with the Department for Education as it develops a workforce strategy, which it hopes will prioritise professional development for childcare workers.
‘It is vital to attract more men into the female-dominated sector as positive role models for boys and to support them in their learning,’ added the director.
Last year, the organisation introduced a new training course and book called Brave Boys geared towards instilling boys with a love of learning from an early age.
She added, ‘Boys need different learning opportunities to girls to ensure they fulfil their potential.
‘Without supporting their natural abilities and interests, they could be switched off from learning.
‘Boys learn when they are active and tend to be in constant motion.’
The NDNA recommends recommends learning outdoors as much as possible, helped with themes that will interest them, such as ‘sport or superheroes’.
‘Give boys clay to make shapes, numbers or letters or encourage them to use their limbs,’ added Ms Ziolkowski, explaining that some boys respond better to non-fiction books rather than stories, particularly those involving science, animals or sports.
Victoria Flint, director of communications at PACEY, said while the gender gap in early years is not new, the expectation has been that boys will ‘catch up’ once at school.
‘This report highlights that the gender gap at age five often has a longer-term negative impact on boys’ lives, limiting their future prospects,’ added Ms Flint.
‘Unsurprisingly, boys from disadvantaged backgrounds fare the worst.
‘PACEY is calling on the Government to prioritise support for qualifications and training in its upcoming workforce strategy, as research from around the globe has shown that these are inextricably linked to quality.
‘World class early education would go a long way in helping future generations of children to achieve their full potential.’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said the report ‘rightly acknowledges’ that blaming the gender gap on biology is ‘too simplistic’, and called for more research on the causes and a way forward for properly addressing the problem.
Mr Leitch welcomed the call for more graduates ‘in principle’ but said that high-quality provision is ‘about more than just academics’, adding that ‘it's about a workforce that is experienced, passionate, and understands that the early years is about care as well as education’.
He continued, ‘What's more, it's not clear that a move towards a graduate-led workforce in and of itself would address the particular reasons for the disparity between the attainment of boys and girls, and it is important that the impact of other factors, such as home learning environments and reductions in family outreach services, are also taken into consideration.
‘Ultimately, like the continued attainment gap between poorer children and their wealthier peers, this is a trend that has persisted for far too long, and so we hope that the new education secretary will read the findings of this report, and other research in this area, closely, and take steps to tackle this issue as a priority.’