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The enduring gender gap in education

Jennifer Buckingham | 24 July 2009

In 2000, the Howard government initiated a parliamentary inquiry into the education of boys in response to widespread concerns that boys were seriously underachieving academically. In 2002, the committee reported that boys’ school performance was much lower than girls, particularly in literacy, and had been declining over time.  A variety of social and educational factors were identified and for a few years there was a flurry of activity in schools to improve the education of boys.

Since then, things have gone quiet on boys’ education. Has the gender gap narrowed? Is this now a non-issue?

Literacy and numeracy tests provide mixed results. The gender gap in Year 3 literacy has not changed from 2000 to 2008.  In Year 3 numeracy, the gap appears to have widened.

The national tests have only one year of data for Year 9, but international tests conducted since 2000 allow examination of trends over time among students of a similar age cohort (15 years). The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for Australia show a large gender gap favouring girls in reading literacy and a smaller gender gap favouring boys in mathematical literacy. From 2000 to 2006, the size of the gender gaps in these assessment areas barely changed. The score difference favouring girls over boys in reading (37 points) is more than twice as large as the score difference  favouring boys over girls in maths (14 points).

These results are not simple to interpret but it seems there has been little progress in improving boys’ literacy performance over the last six to eight years.   Although it can be argued that girls’ maths results are also worthy of concern, the magnitude of boys’ disadvantage in literacy is much more serious.

One of the most important recommendations made in the 2002 report on boys’ education was to reform the method of teaching reading in the early years of school. The committee recommended that literacy programs should include a ‘strong element of explicit, intensive, systematic phonics instruction’ and that teacher education should equip teachers to use these methods in the classroom.

A subsequent parliamentary inquiry into the teaching of reading in 2004 established that explicit, systematic reading instruction is an essential component of early literacy for all children but particularly for boys. The inquiry also found that this teaching method is not routinely taught to teachers and is therefore unevenly applied in schools.  It is not clear whether this situation has changed in the five years since, but unless it does, we can expect the gender gap in literacy to endure for years to come.

Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.