The statistical evidence showing that boys have lower literacy levels and lower average performance than girls in almost all school subjects is now overwhelming.
Boys are also less likely than girls to finish school and enrol in higher education, with serious consequences for the students themselves and society in general.
The problem of boys’ educational underachievement made it onto the political agenda with the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into the education of boys in June 2000.
Last month the inquiry’s report was tabled in parliament. Titled Boys: Getting It Right, it makes 24 recommendations. These reflect three major themes:
- that the document on a national gender equity strategy needs to be rewritten because it is based on a flawed model of masculinity that seeks to achieve equity by changing boys so that they become more like girls, a biased and futile approach;
- that boys’ lower levels of literacy need to be addressed through strategies that take into account boys’ difficulties in hearing and processing verbal instructions from the early years of schooling on, and that reading instruction in schools return to the traditional, phonics-based approach, and;
- that effective teacher education and training is paramount in delivering good educational outcomes and meeting the needs of all children.
These recommendations make good sense and can be implemented almost immediately.
But other recommendations, such as a call for unconditional increases in teacher salaries and a reduction in class sizes, make less sense and are impractical. Salary increases should be tied to performance – that is, good teachers should be better paid, not all teachers – while the evidence of a relationship between class size and learning is inconclusive.
What is most surprising, however, is that the report fails to acknowledge a link between family structure and stability – that is, two-parent families versus single-parent families – and boys’ educational problems, despite research and anecdotal evidence to the contrary.
Yet it acknowledges that father absence is thought to be particularly detrimental to boys.
Given that the majority of single-parent families are headed by mothers, it is hard to see how single parenthood and father absence can be considered two entirely different things. This is not to attack single parents or their children, but to recognise that it is imperative to identify groups at risk of disadvantage in order to target assistance effectively. It behoves us to acknowledge where a problem exists, controversial or not, so that fewer children suffer disadvantage as a result. The inquiry into the education of boys has failed in this regard.
Jennifer Buckingham is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies. She is the author of Boy Troubles: Understanding Rising Crime, Rising Suicide and Educational Failure. Published in June 2000, it brought unprecedented public attention to the remarkable differences between boys and girls in statistics on educational outcomes, crime and suicide.