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What's going wrong with our boys?

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 20 December 2018

Boys have been falling further and further behind girls in school leaving results, we found out this week. This is happening around Australia. In New South Wales, median rankings have been falling for ten years. They have been especially falling in the last five years. Who is doing very well, who is not, and what can we do about it?

Some years ago I gave a paper at a principals' conference. It was about some troubling trends among boys. Their school results were mostly poor. Not just that. They were suspended disproportionately. They were hardly ever excited at all about school. And they were failing to take part in the whole educational enterprise except so far as they were compelled to do so. Afterwards, a British school principal and author took me aside. "Do you know that this is happening all around the world?" he asked me. No, I did not. But I've realised it since. Any internet search will turn up articles about boys' underachievement. It may puzzle parents to read that many academics seem to think that it just doesn't matter. Or they argue that boys get better jobs, and so it doesn't matter if they hate school and think it's a nasty place that makes life almost unbearable for them. In the words of one boy: "I will continue to do my best, no matter how pointless the task is". Why must it be so?

It's not true to say – 'all boys do badly'. Some of the top achievers are boys. Asian boys are noticeable among them: especially Indian, Chinese and Korean. But educational administrators and education departments are concerned about the middle of the range. Here boys and girls ought to be equally represented. They are not. Girls are doing significantly better than boys. And doing better and better every year in the last ten years. Thus – as a educational bureaucrat put it this week in Sydney- many boys are not reaching their full potential. It's not just about marks. Far more boys are suspended; far more are expelled; boys rarely volunteer for anything, apart from sport; and boys are missing out significantly from benefiting from the whole life of the school. The many blessings that education can bring are closed to them: enlightenment, the dawning of thoughtfulness and full depth of feeling. Thus for most boys, school just doesn't work.


If this was any other distinct group- immigrants ; Aborigines; disabled kids; or indeed girls- people would be outraged. Governments would hurry to address the problem. But boys? Nah, they don't seem to matter much. Not to educational authorities, anyway. Or governments.

In English, boys are over-represented in the bottom range, like a chemical sludge that sinks to the bottom of a beaker. And English tries to develop students' ability to talk about life's problems, relationships, marriage, death and separation. And refine complex understandings, and introduce students to nuances and subtleties. And boys aren't getting most of that. It looks a lot like the complaints many women make about men's reluctance to talk about relationships, and their feelings. In short, most of the complaints women make about men. And that's no coincidence. In the words of one movie, boys' expressions of their feelings are reduced to 'ditto'.

Why many boys don't do well

Why aren't many boys doing well at school, and why don't they enjoy school? First: everywhere boys are confronted by bad models of male behaviour. There's the never-ending story of misbehaviour by football players, especially in Rugby League. Boys looking at TV see images of footballers dragged into court, often for assault of females or public misbehaviour. There are far worse images in on-line games that boys play. Second: there are strong, positive messages for girls everywhere. Where are the strong, positive messages urging boys to achieve? Third, teachers get their education at universities in which feminism has a pervasive presence. And thus the pro-girl message in society is reinforced. Fourth: schools will have to find more boy-friendly approaches to learning. Schools emphasise listening, being quiet, sitting down and that word, 'discuss'. That suits girls. But it's often dreaded by males. Boys tell me that girls are good at persuading, arguing, and getting their own way. If all else fails, a girl can cry and get sympathetic treatment. A boy in the UK said "Teachers prefer girls. They work harder, look nicer and smell better".

Who stands in the way?

Attempts made to solve the problem have failed. They were subverted by people who had interests in preserving the status quo. In the UK Mary Curnock Cook, the retiring head of university admissions, says attempts to help boys have been subverted by powerful feminists entrenched in the education system. They have blocked any attempt to help boys, and made it seem like boys' failure is normal and acceptable.  Is this true in Australia, I wonder? We've had the O'Doherty Report in New South Wales and the House of Representatives report Boys: Getting it Right. Neither was properly implemented. All teachers got from the latter were long, tedious sessions in which some academics were paid to parade on Powerpoint their own pet theories about gender. And teachers had to sit there and somehow take in all the jabberwocky about gender theory. In the words of one smart boy, more 'Death by Powerpoint'. But as teachers often tell me "We don't need more of these theories about gender. We need practical steps to help boys learn".


Practical solutions

So here are some practical suggestions. First, we need to look harder at who is being advantaged by schools. Stand at Sydney's Central station (if you don't get knocked over by the crowds) and watch all the young Chinese and Indian faces on their way to selective and private schools. It's a game of "Try to spot a Skippy". Similar patterns obtain at the schools which over-achieve every year. Is it fair that New South Wales taxpayers support selective schools, with superior facilities and hand-picked staff, to advantage some racial groups over others? Many of these kids are coached in Saturday Swotshops of various kinds to bump up their results. At great expense. So Australian working-class kids often miss out. Second, why don't governments investigate what advantages are gained by private schools in which unusually high numbers of chldren insist that they need special consideration because they are 'disadvantaged'? This looks like a lurk that needs careful investigation. Third, teachers have to be persuaded to take into account boys' restless energy and need for active learning. "Sit down, shut up, write this down": it sounds hideous, but it is the complaint most boys make about their schooling. Not once or twice, but in almost every school where I interview boys. "Teachers just drone on and on", they say. "It's all about them". Schools must provide more space for boys to run, jump, leap about, yell, explore, take some risks. Learning is done by most people in active ways, most of the time, and active learning is normally the most useful. Finally, we need a thorough investigation of why school isn't working for working-class boys. UK educators point out white-skinned and dark-skinned working-class boys as having special difficulties.

Education: a cash cow

Let's face facts. Education makes millions for governments, with many international students paying well for schools and university. And many State Governments have made billions from stamp duty and many other hidden charges. But money is not spent on schools. State schools have been run down. Good teachers can't get permanent jobs. State schools have been sold off. Playground space has shrunk. In Sydney last week we had a mammoth smash at Green Square when a truck driver had a heart problem and his huge vehicle ran amok. In these narrow streets there was nowhere to escape, and there were many casualties. Yet children are being raised in these nasty forests of apartments and cramped streets. And then attending cramped schools and squashed into small desks.

New South Wales is flush with funds, and numerous public institutions have been privatised (such as the 'poles and wires' that Baird sold off, and the Lands Office itself). Others, like Centennial Park, are being privatised bit by bit. More public land is being sold off, like the Powerhouse Museum. Yet somehow our State is in many ways poor. The Government has sold off schools, closed schools and got rid of schools with small enrolments. Yet we hear about more and more people arriving in Sydney and needing space for their kids to grow. Boys not achieving - that's just like the canary in the coalmine. It's a sign that all is not well in schools for our kids. Does anyone care?

The parents of schoolboys should be hammering on the doors of their local MP. And raising Cain with educational departments. That might be a good start.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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