|Boys are not doing well at school. Their results in key subjects such as English and the humanities are very poor. Their development in basic areas such as reading and writing is far from satisfactory. Educators are well aware that boys' literacy results are poor. For example, The Inquiry into Boys' Education in NSW (the O'Doherty Report) noted that “Boys under-perform in literacy tests at both Year 3 and Year 6 in Government schools (as measured in the Basic Skills Test)”.
As a result of my own research into similar basic skills tests conducted in Tasmania we now know the extent of this “under-performance”. The difference between boys and girls scores on literacy tests at age 10 is just the same as the difference in performance of students in disadvantaged school and non-disadvantaged schools. In other words, for literacy, the gender disadvantage of being a boy is much the same as the much better recognised socio-economic disadvantage.
That disadvantage, irrespective of socio-economic background, is confirmed by an analysis of English results in Victoria. Associate Professor Richard Teese from Melbourne University studied the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) English results for public and private school students from 1992 to 1994. (These are the Year 12 results that determine a student's chances of entering university. English is a compulsory VCE subject in Victoria.)
The study showed that boys fail English at about twice the rate of girls, wherever they live in Victoria and independent of social or cultural backgrounds. This clear indication of gender disadvantage is comparable in magnitude to the socio-economic disadvantage. Putting it another way, boys' literacy is a major equity issue, but virtually unrecognised.
Just why do boys perform so poorly in literacy? What can parents and teachers do to help? We will examine these issues in detail in a forthcoming article.
An important issue for most men and a crucial one for boys' education is the lack of fathering in current society. This is something that Steve Biddulph talks about in Manhood where he draws on the work of Robert Bly to illustrate the importance of father-son relationships in male development.
He points to the effects of the industrial revolution which meant that fathers and sons, who used to work together in the fields, were now together for only small amounts of time, usually after a hard working day when both were tired. This means that boys see only very limited aspects of masculinity, not the full range of male behaviour.
Today the separation is possibly even more rigid. Men are off in factories or offices and boys are at school for longer and longer periods. In primary schools about 80 percent of the staff are women. Many boys, and girls, go through eight years of primary education without a male teacher. In such a world, how do boys learn to be male?
Construction of Masculinity
With fathers physically and emotionally separated from sons it's harder to learn what it means to be male. But in our society all boys have to grow up to be men. There isn't a choice. Boys will learn their masculinity one way or another.
In present day society there are three obvious ways for boys to learn masculinity. And all three are dangerous.
First, boys commonly learn about masculinity from the media. Boys typically see much, much more television than they see of their fathers. But the models of masculinity displayed on television are either ultra-competitive sportsmen, violent men or dopes not much to choose from.
The second source of models of masculinity comes from the peer group. Young men spend much more time with males of similar ages than with adult men. In peer groups it's the most aggressive and violent male who calls the shots and ends up providing the example of “successful” masculinity.
The third way young men currently learn their masculinity is by reaction. Bad as the other two methods are, this is potentially worse. If you can't learn about masculinity from men because at home and school you are largely surrounded by women then it becomes straightforward to interpret masculine as “not-female”. The particular dangers of constructing masculinity in this way are the very limited range of behaviours that come to be accepted as male and the anti-female attitudes that are likely to develop.
Boys and masculinity will be the subject of my next article. I hope to illustrate how father hunger leads to a construction of masculinity which both limits boys' lives and is bad for society as a whole - in a way which will hopefully keep Steve Biddulph awake!
In our society boys learn to shut down their emotions. Emotional timidity, Steve Biddulph calls it. It's learnt behaviour. Studies have shown that men feel things just as much as women do. They learn, through very powerful and often violent conditioning, to hide their feelings. By the age of about five, boys are already learning to shut down. Ross Buck, in a study of four-to-six-year-olds, found that boys could hide their emotions so well that their own mothers could not tell how they were responding. Yet mothers were readily able to tell what their daughters were feeling. (Masculinity Reconstructed, R Levant, Dutton, 1995)
Parents, schools and the whole society conspire to teach boys to be emotionally controlled. It has some useful features but, as Bettina Arndt argues, can lead to premature death (Australian, 12-13 August 1995).
How does it happen and what can we do about it? I will return to this subject in a later article.
What can Teachers, Parents and Schools Do to Improve Schooling for Boys?
There are many suggestions on how to make schools better for boys, but few established programs. If you would like to let others know about what you are doing to improve boys' education, then please get in contact.
My view is that boys' programs will need to be based on the following principles:
If we are going to improve education for boys we will need contributions from teachers, parents, the media, the community and boys themselves.
- Programs will need to be pro-male.
- Programs will need to tackle boys' education as an equity issue and should include a component of positive discrimination towards boys. Boys will need to feel that taking part is a privilege which is helping enrich their lives and opening up a more interesting future. Participants will need to be positive, neither adopting a fix-boys-up or remedial approach nor attempting to make boys into victims.
- Programs will need, as a basis, an understanding of the issues for men in the wider society. Men and male teachers will need to be heavily involved. There are also many contributions that women can make particularly by encouraging and supporting this work.
- Programs will need to recognise they are running counter to years of tradition and very ingrained ways of thinking.
How do you plan to help?
You can check out Rex's Special Adviser's area on Boys' Education where you can send Rex your message or question.