Should schools alter to better meet the needs of male students?

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The issue
On 21 March 2000 the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs requested the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Workplace Relations to inquire into education in Australia:
The Committee has been charged with inquiring into the social, cultural and educational factors affecting the education of boys in Australian schools, particularly in relation to their literacy needs and socialisation skills.
The Committee has also been asked to identify what successful strategies are currently being used in the education of male students.
The Committee is still hearing evidence. It most recent public hearing was held in Hobart on July 25, 2001.
This hearing is only the most recent investigation into a perceived problem with the education of boys. This 'boys' education' question has generated numerous studies and a great deal of debate as to the nature of the problem and how it might best be addressed.

What they said ...
'The struggle to reduce male alienation, anger and violence must start in our schools'
Federal Labor MP, Lindsay Tanner

'[The] suggestion that the education system should accept responsibility to find solutions for [the problems of adolescent males] is objectionable'
Tony Smith, who teaches Australian politics at the University of Sydney

Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 16
Copyright © Echo Education Services

First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.

Issue outline by J M McInerney

In the late 1970s and early 1980s there were significant Government funded efforts to redress perceived educational disadvantage among female students. Educators and others were concerned about lower retention rates for girls through to the final years of secondary education. There was also concern about girls under achieving in both mathematics and science. Related to this was concern that only a relatively small percentage of girls were choosing to study mathematics and science through to the senior years of secondary education. It was believed that these subject choices and patterns of performance were reducing career prospects for female students.
Over the last twenty years there appear to have been some changes in the patterns of achievement and retention displayed by male and female students.
Girls are now staying on to complete their secondary education to a greater extent than do boys. Overall there is a difference of some five percent in favour of girls in the retention area and there are some states where this degree of difference is significantly higher. On current figures, in Victoria, 84.2 per cent of girls are completing the final year of secondary school, compared to 68.5 percent of boys.
Boys also appear to figure more prominently than girls as behaviour problems in schools with boys accounting for approximately three times the number of expulsions.
Boys have also been shown to be more highly represented among those students likely to need specialist literacy support. School-wide testing has shown that boys' literacy levels overall are some five percent below girls'.
The significance of these various findings is difficult to determine.
It has been claimed, for example, that there may be some physiological base for boys' delay in developing literacy skills. It has also been suggested that the changing employment patterns have meant that schools are catering for a wider range of male students than was previously the case and so problems are becoming apparent among students who would in previous generations no longer be at school.
It has further been suggested that the movement over the last twenty years to a more reflective, evaluative and literacy-based curriculum in all areas of study, including mathematics and science, may have disadvantaged some male students. There are those who refer disparagingly to this trend as the 'feminisation of the curriculum'.
It has also been suggested that changes in the manner in which literacy is taught within schools may have contributed to the literacy problems of male students. Whole language or natural language acquisition models have been criticised by some educators as not suiting most male students.
Thus there is no clear consensus on whether the so-called 'boys' education' problem is actually a new development and there is also no clear consensus as to the cause of the problem.
What does seem apparent is that there is a growing belief that boys' education is problematic and that something must be done about this.

Internet links

The New South Wales government conducted one of the earliest studies on this issue in 1994.
An executive summary of the NSW Government Advisory Committee Report on Boys' Education 1994 can be found at

One of the most valuable current sources of information on this issue is the submissions made to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Workplace Relations Inquiry into Boys' Education in Australia.
187 submissions were received from individual schools, individual teachers, teachers unions, parents' associations (including fathers' groups), principals' associations, private schools' associations and academics.
The vast majority of these submissions can be accessed as pdf files using Adobe Acrobat Reader. A list of the submissions that can be read in this way is available at

Transcripts of the 26 public hearings that the Committee Inquiry has conducted across Australia can also be accessed. These are also available as pdf files to be read using Adobe Acrobat Reader. They can be found at

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has completed a number of studies that have a bearing on boys' education.
In February 2001 ACER released a report titled 'Patterns of Participation in Year 12 and Higher Education in Australia: Trends and Issues.'
One of the report's findings was "The gender gap between boys and girls in both participation in Year 12 and higher education continues to widen, with females outnumbering males in both areas."
A summary of this report can be found at

In October 2000, ACER also published a report titled, 'Gender Differences in Students' Experiences and Outcomes of Schooling? Exploring "Real" Effects from Recent and Emerging Evidence-Based Research in Teacher and School Effectiveness'
The report was prepared by Kenneth J. Rowe, ACER's principal research fellow. This is a very detailed, wide-ranging and valuable report. A detailed summary of it can be found at

The Commonwealth Department of Education Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) has recently released a report titled 'Factors Influencing the Educational Performance of Males and Females in School and their Initial Destinations after Leaving School'.
The report was prepared by by Professor Jane Kenway, Language and Literacy Centre, University of South Australia, and Dr Cherry Collins and Dr Julie McLeod, Deakin Centre for Education and Change, Deakin University.
The report investigates the patterns of males' and females' educational participation and performance at school, their initial destinations after leaving school, the key influencing factors and the disadvantages that arise from them.
It can be read as a pdf file using Adobe Acrobat Reader. It can be found at

Arguments in favour of schools altering to better meet the needs of male students
1. Boys are falling behind girls in academic achievement
There are numerous studies and school retention statistics that support the claim many boys are faring less well academically than are many girls.
On current figures, in Victoria, 84.2 per cent of girls are completing the final year of secondary school, compared to 68.5 percent of boys.
In 2000, the first national report on reading showed literacy problems were worse among boys than girls, with a five percent gap in their achievement.

2. Boys have special educational needs that are not being meet by current provisions
Recent research has suggested that boys have a range of special educational needs that are not being addressed by current practices within schools.
The Hearing Loss Prevention Research Group has recently tested the hearing of more than 3000 Australians. In a submission to the recent federal inquiry into boys' education the Hearing Loss Prevention Research Group suggested that the apparent decline in boys' literacy standards may have been related to a decline in their hearing.
A research scientist, Eric LePage, has suggested that 'From about the first decade of life, the ears of boys ... process sounds more slowly, they provide less information to the brain to be analysed.'
Dr LePage has suggested that spoken material needs to be delivered to boys more slowly if they are going to be able to process it effectively.

3. Boys have different learning styles to those currently favoured within schools
Dr Tim Hawkes, the headmaster of The King's School in Sydney, has claimed that most boys have different learning styles to most girls. Dr Hawkes has stated, 'Most boys like to be physically involved, they like to explore, they like to do, they like to touch.'
Dr Hawkes has suggested that the learning environment provided in many schools is too passive and theoretical to suit many boys.
Dr Hawkes has also claimed that boys are more likely to respond positively to short, 'closed' tasks rather than long open-ended ones. It has been suggested that longer, more open-ended tasks are favoured in many schools, especially in secondary schools.

4. Boys prefer different assessment instruments to those most popularly used within schools
Dr Madsen Pirie, the president of the British think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, has claimed that to ensure boys are not being disadvantaged within schools they should be assessed differently from girls.
It is claimed that boys prefer test-based assessment rather than continuous or coursework-based assessment. It is further claimed that a majority of boys have learning styles that are better suited to short answer or multiple choice questions rather than long answer or essay based questions.
Dr Pirie has also claimed that the style of assessment generally in favour within schools actually disadvantages boys.

5. Boys have a range of social and emotional needs that are not being addressed within schools
Numerous studies have indicated that young males are suffering from an increasing sense of social marginalisation and many are in emotional and psychological distress.
Federal Labor MP, Lindsay Tanner, has noted, 'The overwhelming majority of deaths from illicit drug use involve young men. The incidence of serious assault by young men is increasing ... Since 1979 the number of suicides of men between 25 and 35 has virtually doubled ... Anecdotal evidence suggests that social alienation among young men is growing.'
Mr Tanner has further claimed, 'The path to dealing with these problems lies largely within our education system ... The struggle to reduce male alienation, anger and violence must start in our schools.'

6. There are too few male role models within schools
Adelaide's Flinder's University has conducted research that suggests that boys are disadvantaged in schools by a lack of male education role models.
The Flinder's University study had many boys claiming that teachers gave girls greater trust, respect and leniency.
The same point has been made by Anne Magee, a senior teacher at Xavier College, who has claimed that it is important for boys to have young male teachers who can act as educational role models for them.
It has further been claimed that middle-aged female teachers are sometimes prejudiced against male students. Mr Graeden Horsell, co-president of the National Organisation of School Council Associations, has claimed that middle-aged female teachers tended to see the boys as problems, while ignoring the distracting behaviour of girls.

Arguments in favour of schools altering to better meet the needs of male students
1. There is no crisis in boys' education that would justify special provision for male students
It is claimed that there may be no real crisis in boys' education. Some commentators have noted that part of the apparent problem may be that changing employment patterns have meant that many boys who would previously have left school to take up a job are now staying on through years 11 and 12.
This point was made in an Age editorial published on June 15.
The editorial stated, 'When the economy was more buoyant, boys who were not academically inclined found a job or learnt a trade. As the economy has become more knowledge-based, these boys have been encouraged to stay on at school but it seems they are just as likely as they ever were to wish themselves elsewhere.'
The same editorial notes that changing employment patterns have also seen even larger numbers of girls stay on at school.
It has further been claimed that the higher retention rates of girls compared to boys through to year 12 is not necessary undesirable as it may simply reflect the fact that a larger number of boys still see their future in terms of job training and an apprenticeship rather than completing their secondary education.
Dr Victoria Foster, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Canberra, has made this point.
Dr Foster has claimed, 'What's happening is that boys and girls are using school differently. Girls are working their butts off in the belief that it will give them a credential that they can use later. Boys think that it is no longer important and they're jumping into vocational education and training and employment.'

2. All students have special educational needs, focusing on the needs of boys as a sub-group is distorting
It has been claimed that the growing tendency to see educational and social problems in gender terms may be misleading.
Gender identity is only part of the whole individual and so in order to address learning and other problems effectively educators and others need to consider the whole person.
This point has been made by Ms Kaye Thompson, a Melbourne primary school teacher, who has argued, 'I tend to think that we need to look at each child individually. They all learn differently.'

3. The problems being faced by young males are created outside schools and are best addressed outside schools
Tony Smith who teaches Australian politics at the University of Sydney has made this point. Mr Smith has stated, '[The] suggestion that the education system should accept responsibility to find solutions for [the problems of adolescent males] is objectionable ...'
Mr Smith argues that many of these problems are caused by factors outside the control of schools and should be the responsibility of government and other organisations.
Mr Smith has claimed, '... schools are being burdened with the responsibility of coping with numerous crises created by the failure of political leadership. In some states schools are expected to perform duties that rightly belong to community services.'

4. Girls are still socially and economically disadvantaged and making special provision for boys in schools could worsen that disadvantage
Ms Susan Halliday, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, has made this point. Ms Halliday has noted that boys would never face the 'far higher levels of discrimination and harassment ' their female classmates were likely to encounter in adult life.
Those who support this view note that males are still found to disproportionate extent in the better paid and more secure forms of employment while women tended to predominate in casual, insecure and less well-paid occupations.
Ms Halliday has stated, '... the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission disagrees that the status and performance of girls at school is a matter of complacency, and that boys as a group are deserving of special attention.'

5. Some of the teaching and assessment styles being proposed for boys could reduce the quality of student learning
Associate Professsor Richard Teese, a reader in education at Melbourne University, has stated that boys would not be advantaged by a narrow system of assessment that encouraged rote learning.
Dr Tesse has stated, 'If you leave boys with their preferred style of assessment, you're saying don't bother about conceptual depth, they can guess at things.
Dr Teeese has further claimed that all young people, male and female, need finely tuned conceptual skills to cope with the explosion of knowledge in the 21st century.

6. Female teachers do not disadvantage male students
It is argued that claims that female teachers are biased against male students are themselves prejudiced and promote a narrow and stereotyped view of female teachers, male students and the relationships between them.
It is claimed that the gender of a teacher is only a relatively minor factor in determining his or her likely success with a particular student cohort.

Further implications
This is an issue that seems likely to continue to attract both debate and action. The Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, has recently expressed concern that measures be taken to increase flexibility within schools so that the educational and social needs of male students are well addressed.
Recent government-funded initiatives such as the Middle Years Project and Managed Individual Pathways are largely targeted at male students encountering difficulties within school.
There are those who are calling for an increase in the number of single sex schools as it is again being claimed that these better meet the needs of male students.
This issue is one that is far from having been either comprehensively or effectively addressed.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that what is being discussed is only in part an issue which schools can resolve.
Though changes to schools' curriculum, organisation and teaching practice may be part of the solution, other aspects of the problem appear to stem from changes in the nature and availability of employment and changes in societal values and in family structures.

Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $21.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)

The Age
18/2/01 page 6 news item by Erica Cervini, ' "Sexual apartheid" wrath over school exams theory'
18/2/01 page 6 news item by Annabel Crabb, 'Boys don't need help, commissioner says'
25/2/01 page 4 analysis by Erica Cervini, 'Are women teachers holding back our boys?'
10/3/01 page 7 (News Extra section) comment by Lucy Hamilton, 'The good feminist's guide to raising boys'
11/6/01 page 3 news item by Caroline Milburn, 'Why boys think school is a dead loss'
11/6/01 page 13 comment by Bettina Arndt, 'Snips, snails, puppy dogs' tails: why boys are on the nose'
12/6/01 page 4 news item by Amanda Dunn, 'Schoolboys deprived of educational role models'
14/6/01 page 16 cartoon by Leunig
15/6/01 page 14 editorial, 'Why boys don't like school'

The Australian
8/1/01 page 1 news item by Ebru Yaman, 'Boys' lessons go in one ear ...'
13/1/01 page 26 comment by Angela Shanahan, 'Boys and the sounds of silence'
23/2/01 page 5 news item by Margaret Denny, 'Literacy's smile of success an open book'
5/3/01 page 13 comment by Lindsay Tanner, 'Boys struggle with men's lack of status'
7/3/01 page 12 letters under heading, 'Boys' problems bred by social values'
9/3/01 page 13 comment by Tony Smith, 'The trouble with boys is the trouble with us all'