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Is there a crisis in boys' education?

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Monday, 8 September 2003

Judged by the federal government's report, Boys: Getting it right, the answer is "yes". Whether it be retention rates, year 12 results, being able to read and write or the incidence of behavioural problems leading to suspension and "dropping out", boys, when compared to girls, are increasingly at risk.

To quote from the above-named report, prepared by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training:

  • nationally, girls' results in Year 3 and Year 5 Literacy Benchmark tests are up to five percentage points higher than boys;
  • the Year 12 retention rate for girls is between 11 and 12 percentage points higher than it is for boys;
  • girls' average levels of achievement in a majority of subjects assessed at senior secondary level are higher and the gap in the total has been widening…; and
  • over 56 per cent of students in higher education are women

Why are boys disadvantaged? The first thing to note, as highlighted in the report, is that the way literacy is taught guarantees failure for many boys. Until the advent of "whole language" (where children are taught to "look and guess"), literacy was taught in a more structured way associated with a phonics approach.

Whole language is based on the mistaken belief that learning to read and write is as "natural" as learning to speak and that all teachers need to do is to "immerse" children in a rich language environment. Forgotten is that writing is "unnatural" and that boys, in particular, need to be taught in a more methodical, systematic way.

A second reason why boys are disadvantaged is as a result of the "feminisation" of the curriculum. During the 80s and 90s the status quo in schools was attacked by feminists, left-wing academics and teacher unions as "ethnocentric, patriarchal and bourgeois".

At the national level, documents like Gender Equity: A Framework for Australian Schools (1997), argued in favour of positive discrimination for girls. The assumption being that society was male-dominated and that women were oppressed and disadvantaged.

Research projects funded by the Federal Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) covered topics such as: construction of gender in preschool to grade 3 classrooms, the role of romance stories in promoting femininity and how to promote a "politically correct" view of family studies.

In the English classroom, teachers were urged to "deconstruct" traditional approaches to literature as plays such as Romeo and Juliet unfairly promoted, in the words of one Australian academic, "phallus-dominated heterosexuality and female dependence".


Even the way teachers taught changed to favour girls and to disadvantage boys. Teachers no longer stood at the front of the class and taught, preferring instead to have students work in groups on open-ended tasks. Competitive assessment disappeared, learning relied more and more on strong verbal skills and self-directed learning.

As noted in the report, while there may have been some justification for the above changes, an unintended consequence is that boys come out second best, primarily because:

Boys tend to respond better to structured activity, clearly defined objectives and instructions, short-term challenging tasks and visual, logical and analytical approaches to learning. They tend not to respond as well as girls to verbal, linguistic approaches.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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