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
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
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
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.