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What's going wrong for boys?

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 10 May 2005


We heard recently that the NSW Department of Education had prepared a boys’ education policy in 2002. But the Department was anxious about releasing it and has kept it locked away in a vault in its Bridge St office. What’s going wrong for boys? And why can’t the Department of Education in Australia’s most populous State tell parents what it plans for their boys?

In the April edition of People and Place journal, I set out the complex history of gender education in Australia. Since the days of the Whitlam Government, we have had policies to encourage girls. There is a National Action Plan for the Education of Girls and there are many policies laid down to encourage girls to achieve. Coincidentally, girls are outperforming boys in Australian schools, beating boys academically and achieving many other goals, such as participation in out-of-school activities.

If the girls’ education policies are working, then that is excellent. Perhaps some policies to encourage boys might get boys achieving. Unfortunately, the idea of helping boys learn seems to provoke some people in the Department who claim (according to a teacher speaking on ABC radio) boys “have had it too good, for too long”. Ideologues have captured key positions in educational bureaucracies. And the NSW Department of Education gets edgy about more public controversy about helping boys, or helping girls. And so nearly 400,000 boys in NSW State schools are put in the too-hard basket.

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Research around the world says that schools are not succeeding in capturing the imagination and energy of many boys. Too many boys feel that school is a combination of a hostile authority and meaningless tasks. Dr Andrew Martin of the University of Western Sydney’s SELF Centre writes:

There is now compelling evidence that there are gender differences in students’ engagement, motivation, achievement and students’ relationship to work and school. For the most part, the differences are not in boys’ favour.

The PISA report from the OECD said governments throughout the western world are concerned because schools are not imparting to boys the values governments wish them to learn - such as productivity, citizenship and helping the community. Boys and men at risk cost the community in road deaths, suicide, and broken families. Men are 90 per cent of the people kept at great cost in prisons.

Most (or many) girls will learn even under bad teachers. But most boys will not: they get fed up, disengage and get into mischief. Being a boy, with all its qualities of noisiness, risk and adventure, does not mesh very well with what teachers expect of children who are in classrooms. Boys sum this up as, “Sit still, shut up, write this down”.

Simple solutions won’t work. Who said this was going to be easy? Only last week we heard that bus drivers are having trouble getting boys to behave. We can’t wave a magic wand to make boys learn. Quite often, the media suggest that boys should all be started later at school, or that more male teachers is the answer. Role modelling has been shown to work with groups such as black youth and females and it may well work with boys. So some more male teachers might help - IF they are good teachers dedicated to help children improve. But Ken Rowe of the Australian Council for Educational Research says that no simple recipe will work. A gender gap between the achievements of girls and boys exists in most parts of the western world. Cambridge’s Raising Boys’ Achievement Project could barely locate a school in which boys’ consistently outmatched girls’.

The Federal Government’s report Boys: Getting it Right surveyed parents, teachers and boys and girls around Australia. It found that many people were concerned about boys’ too-frequent experience of school as a hostile authority with meaningless work demands. It came up with a ten-point plan for improving boys’ performance. These included increasing expectations of boys, providing more praise, more active learning, and clear instructions.

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Fathers and other males should be involved in boys’ learning. And computers should be used to catch boys’ interest. Naturally many girls will be glad of such improvements. Girls in the UK have certainly welcomed such innovations. And their learning improved as well as boys’.

Around Australia, many people have taken up the challenge enthusiastically. Researchers are looking at better ways of learning than chalk-and-talk. Individual schools are holding workshops, listening to people who challenge them and getting the teachers themselves to praise boys, asking more of them and using more humour in lessons. The Federal Government has set up Lighthouse Schools to trial new techniques and show other teachers how to improve learning for boys.

Parents want to know how they can help, for they are a key part of the equation. Boys - and girls - want their views heard too. In my research visits to schools, I find girls can express boys’ needs better than boys can. We really know much more about all this than we did 15 years ago.

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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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