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'Sit down, shut up': how schools are failing boys and what we can do

By Peter West - posted Friday, 29 July 2016


In 2002 an Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee produced the Report Boys: Getting it Right . Since then, there has been academic debate, much of it with little understanding and a lot of suspicion of boys. And we are still wrestling with the problems emphasised in academic articles and the media.

Why are many boys doing relatively poorly in schools, and education overall?

The question of masculinity lies at the heart of the issue. Boys feel they must be masculine at all costs . The penalties for not being tough enough are usually ridicule, threats or actual violence, and social exclusion. Bullying has always been a problem, and now we are seeing boys (and girls) bullied and the scene vividly displayed for all to see on Facebook or similar, with disastrous results for any boy even a little unsure of himself:

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As this author said in 'Bullying Goes Viral without a Solution', a newspaper article in The Age in 2011:

An overweight boy is picked on by a smaller boy. The younger boy keeps hitting the other boy until the victim lashes out, picking up his attacker and throwing him onto the ground. The incident at a Mount Druitt school ''went viral'' this week, appearing on websites and TV talk shows around the world.

One wonders who wins from this unpleasant publicity. Not the school, and not the boys involved. Boys are afraid of being afraid and so they are often pushed into a tough but acceptable masculinity. This was made clear in an interview with Mark*, a boy at Greenslopes School in Sydney

Q: What are the rules of being a boy in Australia?

A: Boys need a tough image. Boys can't do lots of stuff. You can't show emotions. They have to win. They have to have the last laugh. Those are the rules of any schoolyard.

Wy are boys underachieving?

Many boys are under-achieving. Not just academically, but right across the school, in and out of classrooms. We are not simply talking about exam results, but engagement in the life of the school as a whole. Nobody seems to be able to explain satisfactorily what happened from 1990 onwards to assist girls, on average, to do better than boys and improve this performance year after year. Nor to explain why boys have begun to do so poorly, relative to girls.

The gender divide holds true in many circumstances: it seems true from the evidence that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls achieve better in literacy tests than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys. And it does seem from other evidence that gender, class and race compound each other, so that girls from wealthier Anglo-Australian homes do better than working-class Anglo-Australian boys.

Boys from some ethnic groups also do well as a general rule. When I looked at exam results for one course in New South Wales, ethnic differences were stark.

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Some reasons commentators have offered for the decline in boys' participation, behaviour and academic success are as follows:

  1. The declining number of male teachers, especially in primary schools , most of all in state schools.
  2. Increasing assessment methods that inadvertently favour girls (such as ongoing assessment rather than exams)
  3. The move away from factual learning and the increasing tendency for teachers to ask questions starting with 'Explain...' and 'Discuss...'
  4. The feminisation of learning and public discourse. Book supplements feature many articles by women, book shows in the media are hosted by women, and we hear constantly about women writing about feminist this and that. Family conferences and writers' festivals have an emphasis on women. You might think there would be room for men somewhere to discuss issues relevant to men. Yet when topics like fatherhood or even male circumcision or men's sexual challenges are discussed, they are discussed by- women. This week I saw an article in Reading Australia for teachers about how to teach feminism in the classroom, using The Female Eunuch as a starting-point. Great idea. Where are the articles showing teachers how to teach thoughtfully about being a man?
  5. Boys want to be active and they want to be outdoors. They don't want teachers talking at them. Yet trips away from school are difficult for teachers, with forms to be filled out and numerous checks done. Sometimes it's hard to get the necessary gender balance in supervision on outdoor visits. And so boys sit still most of the day. The result is much drudge-work, as one British boy wrote: I will continue to do my best, no matter how pointless the task is.

Boys struggle with English

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Names of boys and schools have been fictionalised to protect privacy.



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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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