This Report summarises the Report of a Project done at The King’s School, Parramatta, Australia, where the author was Researcher in Residence over the years 2000-2003. It was written partly as a background paper for the House of Representatives Standing Committee which produced the Report Boys: Getting it Right in 2002.
It encapsulated much work done by the researcher in consultation with the School and earlier in-depth interviews with boys in a cross-section of schools.
DOES IT MATTER IF BOYS ARE ACHIEVING LESS THAN GIRLS?
Some academics seem to think it does not. Or that there is something wrong in worrying about our sons and grandsons.
But Teese et al wrote:
Boys, too, are disadvantaged. Their school careers, on the whole, seem to be less successful, to terminate earlier, to be characterised by failure at an earlier point in time and to be more frequently accompanied by motivational and behavioural problems. Boys are less well integrated, they are typically less positive about school, and have a narrower view of what school should be about.
Concern is arising from parents, educators and governments because:
Boys are being excluded and suspended from school in disproportionate numbers.
School administrators say that the deputy’s discipline list is ninety five percent boys; sometimes more
Boys are not volunteering nearly as much as girls do for all the activities that are important in the life of the school: debating, students’ representative council, music and art.
As Ken Robinson says, if a boy feels school is a waste of time- then that’s the end of it. The feeling dominates the reality. It is no use headmasters preaching or teachers droning on or parents nagging, if all the boys in his peer group are negative about school. That’s what we have to change.
Suicide rates are too high among young people between 16 and 23. And those who succeed most often are male. The ratio of male to female suicides varies between Ireland (the highest) and Mauritius (equal male to female) according to Kraemer.
While boys are crowding outside the deputy’s office waiting to be disciplined, girls are filling a large percentage of the academic lists (although there are significant exceptions, especially Asian boys). Parents have complained about the large number of girls getting rewards for not only academic results but for participation, citizenship, best effort, most improved and so on.
Thus it does matter that, in the words of a UK Report, for many boys school means a hostile authority structure and meaningless work demands.
Governments are concerned that many boys are not getting the full benefit of school life. Western society has a number of problems.
Violence on the streets of capital cities. Excessive rates of drinking and using drugs. Failure to accept differences in culture from recent immigrants. To all of these problems the usual remedy suggested is – education. And schools carry the vast burden of education. So boys’ disconnection from school has wide social consequences.
Wendy Bradford says:
The consequences of having large numbers of young men who are under-educated, unemployable and who hold little responsibility in society are potentially explosive- and a tragedy for the individuals concerned and the community in which they live.
WHICH boys are most in need of assistance? The Project made this fairly clear. Dark-skinned boys come up repeatedly in the literature and schools visited. This includes Aboriginal boys in Australia; Afro-Caribbean boys not only in the Caribbean, but in the UK; Afro-American boys in the USA. Working-class boys who no longer see the chance of working in jobs their fathers had on farms or in manufacturing. Boys whose second or third language is English. And disabled boys. All must be kept in mind. Our concern about boys is not generally aimed at those from well-heeled families.
No sane person would ever say that ‘boys are all the same’. It is still true that most boys face a number of familiar challenges. They have to deal with biological changes at a time when fathers seem reluctant to talk to sons about sexual matters. And there is unlimited sexual material on the internet, often of a type unhelpful to a boy struggling to find his identity. Boys feel they must be masculine at all costs (West 1996). The penalty for not being tough enough are usually ridicule, the threat or actuality of violence, and social exclusion. Boys are afraid of being afraid (Kraemer,2000) and often pushed into a tough but acceptable masculinity. This was made clear in an interview with Mark*, a boy at Greenslopes School in Sydney
Q: What are the rules of being a boy in Australia?
A: Boys need a tough image. Boys can’t do lots of stuff. You can’t show emotions. They have to win. They have to have the last laugh.
Those are the rules of any school yard.
WHY ARE BOYS UNDERACHIEVING?
Nobody seems to be able to explain satisfactorily what happened from 1990 onwards to assist girls, on average, to do better than boys and improve this performance year after year. Nor to explain why boys have begun to do so poorly, relative to girls. The gender divide holds true in many circumstances: it seems true from the evidence that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls achieve better in literacy tests than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys. And it does seem from other evidence that gender, class and race compound each other, so that girls from wealthier homes do better than working-class Anglo-Australian boys, and boys from some ethnic groups also do well (West, 1996, ch. 2 and Teese et al., 1985, 108).
Some reasons offered for the decline in boys’ participation, behaviour and academic success are as follows:
1. The declining number of male teachers, especially in primary schools, most of all in State schools
2. Increasing assessment methods that inadvertently favour girls (such as ongoing assessment rather than exams)
3. The move away from factual learning and the increasing tendency for teachers to ask questions starting with “Discuss…”
4. Poor study habits among many boys
5. Boys seem rarely to own books that they enjoy reading
6. Inability, or reluctance, of fathers to be involved in the lives of boys, sometimes because of separation and divorce
7. Boys are given a label which sticks with them throughout their life at school
8. Teachers can too often prefer girls, who are generally easier to manage and less confrontational
9. Boys are far more likely than girls to go out four or five times a week
10. Boys get turned off by one or two teachers. They shut down and it prevents them from learning virtually everything
11. Boys want to be active and they want to be outdoors. They don’t want teachers talking at them. Yet trips away from school are difficult for teachers, with forms to be filled out and numerous checks done.
Sometimes it’s hard to get the necessary gender balance in supervision on outdoor visits.
I will continue to do my best, no matter how pointless the task is
– A boy in the UK
BOYS’ STRUGGLE WITH ENGLISH
English comes up time and again as a problem for boys. Teese et al. say: Where they can avoid doing English, they often do, and where they can’t, they often fail.
Teese et al. name working-class boys as having most problems in English. Rural boys and dark-skinned boys were mentioned by others as especially challenged by English.
And this is important because literature opens up the interior life of a person. Literature adds to someone’s experience and has an enormous impact on the quality of their communication.
Unfortunately, many boys see English as a treacherous subject: real men don’t read. The hard masculine world of the media is all too present. Movies for years have offered boys Tarzan, the Terminator, The Rock and Jean-Claude van Damme: slight variations on tough masculinity. And boys want to be masculine at all costs. Meanwhile, the world of literature seems soft and feminine. It’s far safer to be a tough guy.
The pattern for the males available to boys on a daily basis is in the media. The unfortunate message is: be tough, say the minimum, show no feelings, and punish anyone who displeases you. So why would we expect boys to do well in a subject that requires that they understand the lives of other people, and explain how they feel about them?
TWENTY RECOMMENDATIONS TO HELP BOYS LEARN
1. Boys’ experience of school will not improve unless the school as a whole makes a determined effort.
2. Every part of the school must work together on this project, especially parents, sports teachers, and classroom teachers.
3. Reading needs special attention for boys. Make sure that the books provided capture boys’ interest. If not, junk them and try some others.
4. Paired reading can work- one boy reads to another boy, or to a girl.
5. Schools must try harder to persuade parents to read to boys and listen to boys read.
6. Schools should look at what happens in playgrounds- an arena where all kinds of interaction can happen, positive and negative, that determine how a boy feels about his time at school.
7. Teachers must try harder to focus on what boys will do in a lesson. Teacher talk should not be the default mode: boys are rarely good listeners. Teachers should focus on what boys are doing and work hard to maximise time-on-task.
8. If a boy is sitting at a desk for hours on end, something is very wrong. Attention must be paid to boys’ physical need to move, stretch, walk, create, communicate.
9. Boys don’t usually ask for help with work. Teachers should provide patterns for writing an essay; for starting work on book reviews; for constructing dioramas. A rubric should be on display permanently so that boys can refer to it.
10. Lessons should have a summary made by boys themselves. This can be done verbally, and then written down. Many variations are possible: perhaps a cartoon, a picture, or dot points.
Ask boys how they want to do a summary. They may surprise with their inventiveness.
11. Boys in trouble at school usually let things slide. We don’t favour males in need of help. Thought must be given as to how boys who are bullied or having home difficulties can ask for help in ways that work for them.
12. Fathers and grandfathers need to be involved in boys’ lives in productive ways. Schools could run workshops or provide opportunities for them to learn productive ways of interacting, e.g. in reading or listening to ‘what happened at school’.
13. Schools must increase choices for boys. They could survey boys to find out what works for them, and how they want to learn.
An outsider or a trusted adult might be useful. If it’s a co-ed school, girls’ opinions need also to be sought. Girls often have insightful comments to make on how boys learn.
14. Evidence suggests that boys need praise more than girls do to stay on-task and achieve good results. Yet teachers praise girls more often. They seem afraid of being too soft on boys, lest they misbehave. Good teachers have a large range of words they can use so that boys can be praised meaningfully.
15. Schools should reflect on what a boy has to gain by working hard, rather than mucking up and being sent out to sit outside the deputy’s office.
16. School staff should sit down regularly and look at what is happening to boys (and girls, if applicable). How many of each sex are on suspension and expulsion lists? How many are on achievement lists? What can be done about it?
17. Schools should look for ways in which boys can do real work, not filling in worksheets or copying off the board.
18. Outside tasks are meaningful for boys. One school had boys delivering phone books. Some schools take boys to visit older people in aged care homes. Work undertaken must be practical and meaningful, as far as possible.
19. Boys need teachers who listen to them, respond to them, and connect with them. And they must have teachers who believe in their essential goodness and capacity to learn.
20. To make boys achieve, schools must demand high standards, insist that boys behave, and strive always to bring out the best in boys.
This work was first published at the University of Western Sydney. Most of it was written while at The King’s School, Parramatta. Thanks are due to Rob Chandler, Dr Tim Hawkes and the staff and boys of The King’s School at the time. In the UK, John Head, Gary Wilson and Geoff Hannan were very helpful.
Visits were made to many schools and researchers, mainly in the UK, Sweden, the US and Germany, as well as Australia. The author has taught and done research at all-boys and all-girls schools as well as co-ed schools.
*All the names of boys have been changed to protect privacy.
Kraemer, ‘The Fragile Male’
Robinson, Ken, with Lou Aronica, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education.
Viking, New York, 2015
West, Peter, ‘Boys’ Underachievement in School’
The original Report was published as
West, Peter, Report on Best Practice in Boys’ Education. University of Western Sydney and The King’s School, 2002.