March 5 2015 Latest news:

Minister David Willetts has called on universities to treat white working-class boys as a disadvantaged group when it comes to recruitment in an attempt to overcome a slump in applications from men.

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In Norfolk and Suffolk, where there is a legacy of low participation in higher education and young people across the board have been accused of a lack of ambition, education leaders say news of their under-performance is nothing new.

But, while they welcome the ministers’ calls to focus more on attracting white, working-class boys onto degree courses, they question whether putting such a big job entirely at the feet of universities is properly addressing the issue.

Mr Willetts’s comments came yesterday as he revealed there were now “more women who enter university each year than there are men who submit a Ucas [university application] form”.

Just 30pc of male school-leavers applied to university in 2012, compared to 40pc of female school-leavers, according to Ucas.

The universities minister believes white, working-class boys should now be added to the range of disadvantaged groups specifically targeted by admissions departments to encourage more of them to enter higher education.

He has called on higher education institutions to stage “real” summer schools that give pupils from schools with a poor record of getting students to university a chance to get a feel for campus life.

And he will consider adding white working-class boys as an official target group in university access agreements – something they must adhere to if they want to charge annual tuition fees of more than £6,000.

Last night, headteachers and university officials in Norfolk and Suffolk agreed there was a problem when it came to encouraging boys from poorer backgrounds into higher education.

Rob Anthony, associate headteacher at the Hewett School in Norwich, said: “Look at most schools in the Norwich area and look at which groups aren’t doing as well as they should be doing – it tends to be white, working class boys.

“That’s one of the challenges facing schools.”

Peter Whear, headteacher at Old Buckenham High, in South Norfolk, agreed, saying they had been recognised as an under-performing group for many years.

He said: “I don’t think this is a new story.

“Successive governments have tried to do something about raising aspirations among white working class boys.”

At the region’s universities, admissions groups have long been working on encouraging more boys on to their courses.

At the University of East Anglia, 42pc of its UK and EU undergraduates are male, although only 23pc of students – male and female – are from working-class backgrounds.

Louise Bohn, head of outreach, said the UEA ran a number of programmes targeting hard-to-reach groups with one called Sports for Boys specifically aimed at year seven schoolchildren.

She added: “Last year we worked with nine schools and 236 boys.

“The number seriously thinking about university doubled from the time they first arrived to the time they left.”

University Campus Suffolk, which has a base at Lowestoft, said the type of courses it offered were traditionally female-dominated and 80pc of applications for next year’s intake were currently from women.

But Katie Jackson, student recruitment and widening participation officer, said: “We actively market our courses to male students and our access agreement and outreach activity will continue to target working-class male students, from white, ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds.”

And Neil Powell, pro vice-chancellor at the Norwich University of the Arts, said it was already exceeding its target of admitting 35pc of students from poorer backgrounds.

But with education leaders here so used to working in an environment where encouraging participation in higher education is an uphill battle, they recognise the problem is likely to be too deep-rooted for universities to address on their own.

Jason Morrow, headmaster at the independent Norwich High School for Girls, who described himself as a “white working-class boy who was given access to a university education”, said: “Trying to put all the pressure on universities is the government yet again ignoring that the root cause is about a lack of opportunity much further down the education system.”

Mr Anthony, of the Hewett School, said it needed to begin while youngsters were at primary school. He added: “It’s not something we specifically target at working-class boys, but it’s something we do with every student. We speak to them about what it’s like to be at university. We encourage them to go for a career rather than a job.”

Dr Bohn said the wider issue of poor exam performance by those boys was also something that needed to be addressed if real changes were to be made.

She said: “The main factor that will influence someone’s likelihood of going to university is attainment.

“This is much more about us working with other organisations. We can give our expertise in terms of widening aspirations. It isn’t an issue that universities can fix but we can work with others on it.”

•What do you think? Do working class white boys need special treatment from universities? Leave your comments below.

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