Would a “Gender Balanced” workforce within an early years setting increase the attainment of boys, closing the gender gap in attainment?

Gearies - nursery child with red car


This study analysed the impact of maximizing the high percentage of male staff supporting children within an outstanding early years provision in an attempt to close/narrow the growing gap in attainment between boys and girls.  While the schools early years provision was recently judged as, “Outstanding” by OFSTED in September 2015, data for recent cohorts have illustrated a growing gap in gender attainment, especially with regards to the attainment of boys joining our reception classes who had not been to our nursery. Male members of staff supporting these children make up 44% of the teams dynamics, this study looked to see if this unusual dynamic could be better maximized to increase its potential on supporting the progress and attainment of boys at risk of not making a good level of development.

Context of the school 

This school opened in 2013 following the amalgamation of a former infant and junior school. It was awarded National Teaching School status in April 2014 and works with other local schools as part of the Gants Hill Partnership Teaching Alliance. The school is much larger than the average primary school, with three classes in each year group. It is expected that pupil numbers will continue to grow. Pupils from minority ethnic groups make up nearly the whole school roll. The majority of these pupils are from Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and other Asian heritages. The vast majority of pupils speak English as an additional language.


Ethnographic Research:

“Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behaviour – based on information collected through fieldwork.” –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method often used in social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology. It is often employed for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation in which the researcher becomes a part of the community on which research has to be done. Data can also be collected through interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied (i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos) through writing. It can also be called a “case report”. Ethnography can be widely used in education. It helps in addressing the educational problems of a particular group. The researcher has to become a part of the particular group in order to conduct ethnographic study where the focus is to get familiar with group’s culture to then sense the underlying problems.

Action Research:

Action research is undertaken in a school setting. It is a reflective process that allows for inquiry and discussion as components of the “research.” Often, action research is a collaborative activity among colleagues searching for solutions to everyday, real problems experienced in schools, or looking for ways to improve instruction and increase student achievement. Rather than dealing with the theoretical, action research allows practitioners to address those concerns that are closest to them, ones over which they can exhibit some influence and make change. Practitioners are responsible for making more and more decisions in the operations of schools, and they are being held publicly accountable for student achievement results. The process of action research assists educators in assessing needs, documenting the steps of inquiry, analyzing data, and making informed decisions that can lead to desired outcomes. (Ferrance.E, 2000)

Research that informed this study

While one of the first clear calls from the coalition government was for the early years sector to encourage greater gender equality in the workforce. The number of men in the sector has stayed at just 2%. The arguments for more men working to care for and teach our youngest children are compelling. We are denying children access to a diverse workforce and the wider range of opportunities and experiences possible through men and women working together to meet the needs of boys and girls. As Early Years providers and practitioners, we understand the profound effect of the reciprocal relationship and interactions we have with our children; the responsibility for shaping development during their formative years and the joy and fulfillment of making a difference in their lives. Now, more than ever, we need committed individuals to help close the attainment gap for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In this respect, almost 50% of the population is currently an untapped resource.

In an effort to close the “gender [attainment] gap‟ (Carrington et al. 2007: 397) a number of concerted local authority and government campaigns have been realised (Watson, 2010), coupled with institutional recruitment drives in both the United Kingdom (UK) (TDA, 2008) and abroad, urging more “brave‟ men to work with children in the early years (0-5) and primary school sectors (5-11). In recent years it has become generally accepted that male practitioners/teachers are not only of benefit to “boys‟ schooling but also because they [boys] are considered to be at a disadvantage due to a dearth of male presence in their lives (Johannesson, 2004). With rising numbers of children experiencing a breakdown of the traditional family unit and growing up in single parent families, there is increased calling from Children‟s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) (cited in Ward, 2009) and the UK government (cited in Holley, 2010) to redeem the concomitant shortage of men who work in early years settings and primary schools and thus raise academic motivation, behaviour, engagement and attainment levels of boys (Parkin, 2009: 6).

After countless searches looking for the “Compelling” arguments for increasing gender equality within our early years workforce, the avocation of the impacts of an increase in male workers seem to predominately discuss the impacts males would have as “Brave-Strong role models.” This appears a very narrow viewpoint, a contentious and ambiguous one, (Brownhill, 2010) While each piece of research shares a similar line to, ” The benefits are clear” each piece of research fails to outline such benefits other than being “The Role Model” for “fatherless boys.”

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) identify that the most successful, proven, ways to enhance progress, attainment and “narrow a gap” relate to a practitioners ability to deliver high quality communication and language approaches which emphasize the importance of spoken language and verbal interaction. That are based on the idea that children’s language development benefits from approaches that explicitly support talking, verbal expression, modelling language and reasoning. The EEF observe that “Feedback” is of paramount importance and must be given to the child, aiming to (and be capable of) producing improvement in a child’s learning. Feedback redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome. It can be about the learning activity itself, about the process of activity, about the student’s management of their learning or self-regulation or (the least effective) about them as individuals.

The EEF’s findings relate nicely to the concept of  ‘Sustained shared thinking’ . This occurs when two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity, extend a narrative etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend the understanding. It was more likely to occur when children were interacting 1:1 with an adult or with a single peer partner and during focused group work. The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project (2004)

Many theorists believe and research shows that sustained shared thinking is fundamental to how practitioners approach children’s learning and development. Rather than a focus on ” Being a brave role model”, which could be viewed as patronizing or offensive (to both men and women within the early years) this study looked at the impacts of  male team members, delivering the approaches outlined by the EEF and EPPE research, in supporting targeted boys who were at risk of not making/achieving a “Good Level of Development.”

An overview of actions

This study made three changes to the schools current practice.

1. It increased the, already high, ratio of males supporting children through high quality interactions. This was achieved by redirecting a male instructor’s timetable to include three afternoon sessions across the reception and nursery provision, each week. (44% male, 56% Female workforce)

2. This instructor received coaching and mentoring to assist in his delivery of high quality interactions as outlined by the EEF and EPPE research.

3. One afternoon, each week, was dedicated to the promotion of high quality interactions between targeted boys and male team members.

This study was supported by regular networking events providing critical friendships with nine other practitioners across five schools to ensure that the quality and validity of the study was upheld over the year.


  • Boys attainment was 16% higher than the Borough average.
  • Boys attainment was 8%  higher than girls in Personal Social Emotional development (96% inline to secure a Good Level of Development)
  • Boys attainment was 3% higher than girls in Communication and Language (94% GLD)
  • Boys attainment was 17% higher than girls in Physical Development (98% GLD)


1. Early Years providers should seriously consider ways to address gender imbalance within their workforce to ensure we do not deny children access to a diverse workforce and the wider range of opportunities and experiences possible through men and women working together to meet the needs of boys and girls.

2. “Males” should not simply be seen as “Brave Role Models” all adults within an early years team need to understand and deliver high quality interactions with all children.

3. With careful consideration of points 1 and 2, a more gender balanced team can provide enhanced opportunities to narrow/close the gender gap in attainment.


  • Are you part of a network that can offer support, guidance, critical friendship?
  • Is you early years team and environment supportive to male colleagues?
  • Have you considered parental responses?
  • Do you have the social and professional capital to support the development of a new member of the team, who may have limited early years experience?