Improving literacy levels for boys must be a priority - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Boy in classroom

Improving literacy levels for boys must be a priority

Too many Australian boys leave school without the reading and writing skills needed for success in work and post-school study. New NAPLAN results show that around one in seven boys near school-leaving age don’t meet the national minimum reading standard.

For writing, it’s about one in five — around twice the proportion of girls failing to meet this standard. This means many have difficulty comprehending texts, clearly expressing ideas and structuring sentences properly.

To be sure, it’s nothing new that girls outperform boys in literacy. For many parents and educators, this is plain to see. But the statistics starkly reinforce these observations.

In reading, boys are around 13 months behind similar girls by Year 9. In writing, they’re around 21 months behind. This dwarfs the much-discussed advantage boys have over girls in numeracy, which is the equivalent of around four months’ worth by Year 9. As a result, boys’ chances of successfully completing Year 12, applying for jobs, or starting — and especially finishing — post-school study, are all put at risk. More than other learning areas, writing skills most determine post-school success, making it critical that boys are achieving on a more level footing.

Though boys’ literacy underperformance is no secret, there’s been no narrowing of this gap. And policymakers appear complacent about it, despite consistent rhetoric on addressing educational inequities. For instance, a recent Productivity Commission report considering which ‘equity groups’ need extra attention from policymakers papered over boys’ illiteracy. And a recent analysis from the Australian Education Research Organisation rightly highlighted long-term deficits in students’ writing ability but the highly unequal outcomes of boys didn’t rate a mention.

Of course, Australia’s school students come up against several education risk factors. There’s no doubt those in regional and remote locations and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds require additional support. But it must also be noted there are already significant policy levers deployed in response to these needs, including school funding that directs more resources to more disadvantaged schools, income support and related policies and community organisations providing valuable support services.

However, the elephant in the room is that a major gap in outcomes between boys and girls, no matter where the students come from, is as significant and persistent as the other equity concerns that attract attention.

It’s been two decades since the state of boys’ education was last reviewed by the Australian Parliament, apparently to little effect — but the nation could look to NSW for direction on how to improve outcomes.

A NSW parliamentary inquiry into school infrastructure last week recommended reversing decades of classroom designs that have promoted open plan spaces, rather than traditional settings. As the inquiry argued, so-called ‘innovative learning environments’ simply result in poorer student engagement, especially for boys, who tend to have more challenges with attention spans and are more vulnerable to distractions in class.

Boys are also consistently overrepresented in poor behaviour metrics across the country, meaning perhaps other states should follow NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet’s lead to appoint a schools’ behavioural advisor.

Turning around boys’ poor literacy outcomes deserves the same conviction and commitment that education’s equity advocates have successfully demonstrated for other educationally vulnerable groups. Those genuinely committed to education equity must not leave boys behind.

Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Julia M Cameron