A Sustained Participatory Action Research Initiative To Tackling Gaps In Boys’ Educational Attainment

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Taking Boys Seriously (TBS) emerged as a longitudinal research project from the Centre for Young Men’s Studies at Ulster University in 2006. TBS was funded by the Departments of Education and Justice in Northern Ireland in response to concerns about boys’ educational attainment levels and wider concerns about boys’ health and well-being. TBS consists of two separate waves of longitudinal research – TBS1 & TBS2. The first iteration of TBS consisted of a 5-year study (2006-2012) tracking the progress of 378 adolescent boys from nine schools through their secondary school career. Findings from TBS1 emphasised the need for early identification of barriers to learning, the centrality and importance of relationships between boys and educators, the value of creating spaces for boys to explore notions of violence and masculinities, gender-specific approaches to learning, and the benefits of informal youth work methodologies being employed in formal educational settings. Building on the recommendations from TBS1, Ulster University’s Widening Access and Participation department invested in a second five-year research project running from 2018-2023. This second iteration of TBS2 is intent on influencing education policy, pedagogy and practice in relation to young men’s educational outcomes and experiences. At the midway point, the researchers have drawn on initial findings developing three interacting concepts – compounded educational disadvantage, the educational ecosystem, and boys as relational learners. The latter concept mirrors wider research in this field including Reichert and Hawley’s (2010) international study that determines “boys are relational learners”. TBS2 has advanced this concept through the development of 10 relational principles for educators to intentionally apply within their educational practice with young men. These initial findings and concepts are derived from an innovative research approach that accentuates the voice and experiences of boys. The research identifies systemic issues that produce compounded educational disadvantages particularly for boys residing in quintile 1 communities. Concomitantly TBS2 calls upon all those who are part of the ‘educational ecosystem’ to reflect and act upon the contribution they can make in enabling boys to thrive. While this paper touches on these findings, the key purpose is to present the evolution of a robust methodology that has established TBS as the principal research project in Northern Ireland generating relevant and actionable research on how to support boys to do better in education. Crucially, the value of two waves of longitudinal research incorporating a broad participatory action research (PAR) framework underpinned by a grounded theory approach is presented. Mixed methods of data collection are employed including baseline questionnaires, focus groups, participant observation, and Q methodology. Fundamental to TBS is the centrality and continuity of boys’ participation as co-creators of the research process, contributing to a rich tapestry of research. It is proposed that this PAR approach may be of value in other regions where the intersectionality of gender and socio-economic class on boys’ attainment levels as well as other attributes such as ethnicity require a robust research agenda that generates transformations in educational policy, pedagogy, and practice not only through the findings, but importantly, also through participation in a creative PAR process.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 7 Mar 2022
EventINTED2022: 16th International Technology, Education and Development - Online conference
Duration: 7 Mar 20228 Mar 2022


ConferenceINTED2022: 16th International Technology, Education and Development
Internet address


  • Participatory action research
  • Gender attainment gap
  • Relational learning
  • Boys
  • Informal education
  • Formal education


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