The Puzzle of Boys’ Educational Decline: A Review of the Evidence

Jennifer Buckingham
18 November 1999 | IA9
The Puzzle of Boys’ Educational Decline: A Review of the Evidence

The declining standard of boys school performance in the last decade is great cause for concern. Although research has attempted to explain this trend, lack of empirical evidence has precluded conclusions to date, and tends to raise more questions than it answers.

The decline is represented in a combination of three notable developments:

  1. deteriorating comparative performance of boys in literacy and English;
  2. improving performance of girls in maths and the physical sciences; and
  3. recent changes in curriculum and assessment that have exacerbated these effects.

A key question is why boy literacy skills and subsequent English performance are inferior and deteriorating. The main factors implicated in the gender gap in English and literacy performance are:

  • biological differences This does not explain why the gender gap is increasing
  • gender biases and expectations This does not shed any light on the deterioration in boys’ English performance, nor does it offer any explanation as to the genesis of these biases.
  • teaching and curricula This does not explain why boys learn differently.
  • socio-economic status It does seem that socio-economic status has the strongest link with boys’ school performance. However, lack of empirical evidence prevents a conclusive assessment.

Although income does play a role, the most important elements are parental education and family stability. How specific attributes of broken families’, such as father-absence, might affect boys more than girls is yet to be established. Whether teaching methods and school curricula differentially disadvantage boys, and, if so, how, are questions yet to be answered.

Access to information held by Departments of Education would be very valuable in addressing these issues. Without it, research possibilities are limited, and the educational outcomes of boys remain uncertain.

Jennifer Buckingham is a research assistant with the Taking Children Seriously program and co-author of State of the Nation 1999: Indicators of a Changing Australia.

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