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The boys deserve a better chance at school as well as in life

By Brendan Nelson - posted Tuesday, 24 February 2004

Where masculinity was once considered a virtue, it is now seen by many boys as an obstacle to be overcome. Boys on average are achieving at significantly lower levels than girls in all areas of the assessed cognitive curriculum from early primary to late secondary school.

In the 20 years from 1975, the proportion of 14-year-old boys failing to meet basic literacy benchmarks increased from 30 per cent to 35 per cent. Boys' literacy achievement in years three and five now lags behind that of girls by four and a half percentage points.

Year 12 retention rates are 11 per cent higher for girls, driving a six per cent higher rate of university entry.


Though the year 12 gap between boys and girls is up to 19 percentage points, with girls outperforming boys in 90 per cent of courses, the real problems are at the other end of the educational spectrum.

Our concern should not be so much that girls are doing better than boys - it's about time - but rather that boys are represented more than two to one in the bottom quartile. They are also not doing as well as boys did 30 years ago.

Boys represent 80 per cent of students in school disciplinary programs and are more likely to be involved in assault and drug-related incidents.

They are three times more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident and five times more likely to take their own lives than girls.

There is no single cause to which any of this can be attributed but there are a number of things that have happened. Much-needed changes to teaching which were required to lift educational outcomes for girls have often been imposed in a way that has neglected the different learning requirements of boys, who need a more practical, hands-on approach to learning.

Boys process information differently from girls. A girl listening to a teacher will be taking in the third sentence while boys are still trying to work out what was in the first.


The gender equity framework for education is being refocused on the needs of both boys and girls.

Where once maths and physics exams were practical, multiple choice and tick-a-box, today's exam questions are couched in complex language requiring sophisticated literacy skills. As one boy remarked, "I knew the answer. It's just that I couldn't understand the question."

To address these and other issues, I announced last year a program involving 230 schools in 110 projects highlighting best practice in relation to boys' education.

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Article edited by Merrindahl Andrew.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This story was previously published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 20 February 2004.

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson is a former federal Minister for Education, Science and Training and is the Liberal Member for Bradfield (NSW).

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Related Links
Brendan Nelson's home page
Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training - Boys’ Education website
Commonwealth Government’s Boys’ Education Lighthouse Schools Programme
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