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Hang on, school is one of the few places where boys donít do well

By Dale Spender - posted Monday, 29 March 2004


They don’t do well at reading and writing; they don’t stay on at school in the same numbers as girls – and they make up only about 43 per cent of university students.

This underachievement of young boys is in stark contrast to other areas of endeavour. The further boys leave school behind, the greater their levels of success. Whether it is at advanced levels of academic study, promotion to the top jobs, or running the country, it has escaped no one’s notice that outside school, boys do much, much better than the girls.

This recent and relative failure of boys to outshine the girls in the classroom is attracting a lot of attention. While many explanations are offered, most of them focus on the boys themselves.

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Some say it’s because boys can’t concentrate. Or they don’t fit in at school. Others, such as Peter West of the University of Western Sydney, insist that it is because boys don’t have positive male role models. He says there are too many women teachers, too much feminisation of the classroom, and so boys are missing out on the experience of being able to see and copy the behaviour of the responsible, successful male.

Which seems a strange sort of argument. For while it is true that in NSW, Mr West’s home state, that fewer than 20 per cent of the teachers are male, they are by far the majority of the principals and senior staff. Surely this provides positive role-modelling for the boys? They can see that even in the most feminised of occupations, males are in charge. They just have to wait until they leave school to achieve this goal.

And it is this crucial insight that should concentrate the minds of all those interested in the self realisation of boys. That it is only at school that they are not the winners.

Which means the question we should be asking is not what is wrong with the boys, but what is wrong with the school?

Even the evidence of boys’ poor performance needs closer examination here. The actual results of boys have not really undergone a dramatic decline - quite the opposite. Thirty years ago it was widely recognised that between 30-40% of boys could not read or write proficiently. And as Adele Horin has pointed out – boys are probably doing better today. More are staying on at school, and more are going to university and maybe they are better than they were at reading and writing.

The problem is that their performance hasn’t been improving at the same rate as girls.

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So it isn’t that the boys are going backwards – rather the world, and educational expectations, are going forward.

Throughout the industrial era, there were always jobs available for those boys who couldn’t read or write well. But in the knowledge society of the 21st century, ever higher and newer skills are being demanded. Most of the people in the workforce are now being called upon to manage vast amounts of information. And it’s not the old print form; it’s digital. It’s all about computers. And this is where the boys come into their own.

Boys today are members of the ’net generation. They have grown up wired, and whenever they can get their hands on the equipment, most of them excel at anything to do with computers.

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Article edited by Fiona Armstrong.
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Dale spender is a researcher and writer on education and the new technologies.

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