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The inquiry into educating boys: getting it right some of the time

By Jennifer Buckingham - posted Friday, 14 November 2003

Statistics show that boys have lower literacy levels and lower average performance than girls in almost all subjects at school, and are less likely than girls to complete school and enrol in higher education. In June 2000, after a six-month period over which the issue of boys’ relatively lower school participation and performance rarely left the spotlight, the Commonwealth government announced a parliamentary inquiry into the education of boys.

The flurry of media and public interest revealed that this apparently new development could actually be traced back over the previous decade and before. A number of researchers and educators in Australia and overseas had been concerned about the underachievement of boys but the problem had been given little attention.

Several explanations can be given for the neglect of boys' educational decline. One explanation is that it was not until the late 1990s that the differences in achievement levels between boys and girls could be confidently described as significant and sustained. Another explanation is that some of the most influential people and organisations in the education industry and in academia were, and still are, resistant to the idea that boys should be given special attention.


The overwhelming statistical evidence forced many of these people to justify their position. Some attempted to downplay the statistics by pointing out that some boys do very well at school while some girls do poorly and that other factors must considered — the ‘which boys, which girls’ approach. Others suggested that gender differences favouring girls at school are balanced by gender differences favouring men in the labour force. Still others eschewed any special efforts to increase boys’ school performance as a backlash against the progress made in the education of girls in the 1990s.

None of these arguments is legitimate. While it is true that not all boys are doing badly and not all girls are doing well, the distributions of performance show that far more boys are doing badly than girls at all levels of schooling and in all areas of study. It is also true that socio-economic variables are related to school performance, but boys do worse than girls at all socio-economic levels. The gender difference is smaller is at the top of the socio-economic scale than at the bottom, but the difference persists.

As for male labour-market advantages, two responses are necessary. The first is that the lower average income of women is not necessarily an indicator of disadvantage. Women often choose jobs that are not as highly paid, for a variety of reasons, and their careers are often interrupted by childbearing and childcare. Labour force participation of women is lower for the same reason. We are likely to see boys’ educational disadvantage of the last decade or two reflected in the labour market in years to come, as these cohorts of boys become a larger component of the post-school population. The second important consideration is the value of education for reasons other than employment and income, a point that will be expanded later.

The most extreme arguments against a focus on boys’ education came from academics and commentators who are well-known feminists. They seemed to believe that any strategy to promote the education of boys must be at the expense of girls, and that it would (re)start the gender war. This is not the case, and indeed there are many benefits to girls in improving boys’ education. Boys who are interested and involved in schooling will have fewer behaviour problems, which will mean fewer disruptions for all students and less classroom time devoted to discipline. Another benefit for females is that well-educated boys grow into eligible, intelligent men.

Having established that there is indeed a problem, and that a solution is necessary, the next question is what to do about it. Providing an answer was the formidable task of the afore-mentioned parliamentary inquiry. Submissions to the inquiry came thick and fast. The 202 submissions came from sources including government departments, schools, teacher unions, parent groups, charities, universities, police, private organizations, and individuals.

An even greater number of people attended hearings and gave evidence to the inquiry. Using all of this information, the inquiry committee had to determine which arguments had the most merit and then to refine them into clear, sensible and realistic policy recommendations. In October 2002, the report of the inquiry was tabled in Parliament. In many respects, the committee executed their task commendably.


The report, titled BOYS Getting It Right, makes 24 recommendations. They have three major themes. The first is that the document setting out a national gender equity strategy needs to be rewritten so that it reflects the educational requirements and entitlements of boys and girls in a more balanced way. The current document is based on a deficit model of masculinity, that is, it seeks to achieve equity by changing boys so that they are more like girls, which is a clearly biased (and futile) approach.

The second theme picks up that the most important feature of boys’ educational underperformance is their lower levels of literacy. Inability or difficulty reading, writing and communicating can lead to disengagement, behaviour problems and, ultimately, lower than expected performance or failure. Two key recommendations are made that address the problem of literacy. One is to increase awareness of the impact of hearing and auditory processing difficulties on learning. Research has found that, in effect, boys’ capacity for hearing and processing verbal instructions is, in general, less than girls’, from the early years of schooling on. This is a remarkable finding, and one that was not well known prior to the inquiry. It has important implications for classroom instruction and pedagogy.

The other key literacy-related recommendation is that reading instruction in schools revert to the traditional, phonics-based methods; that is, a structured, sequential approach to reading, which involves sounding out words and that is better suited to children with short attention spans (such as boys). This method has been shown to be superior in overcoming reading difficulties for all children, but especially boys. It had been largely abandoned for the ‘whole language’ method in the 1970s, whereby children learn to ‘read by sight’ and memory, without instruction in the patterns, framework and rules of words and language, but is now gradually coming back into favour.

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About the Author

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow with The Centre for Independent Studies.

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Boys: Getting it Right report
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