May 27, 2008
This is Education Week - a time to reflect on the successes and failures of the education system. One of its failures that rarely appears in the media is the way schools and universities are failing our boys and young men.
During the 1960s and '70s, research identified that girls were not equally represented in retention rates to year 12 and were less likely to go to university. The social roles of women had restricted their opportunities to participate in the public sphere. This inequity led to initiatives by the federal government and state education departments to ensure that girls' needs were met, culminating in the National Policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools in 1987.
Soon there was proof of success. By 1989 slightly more females (49.6 per cent) than males (48.3 per cent) were continuing to tertiary study. By 1990 there was a substantial increase in all students staying at school until year 12, with a majority being girls. In 1992, retention rates were 10 per cent higher for girls (82 per cent) than boys (72 per cent).
However, there was a developing concern that these gains for girls were not the result of integrating the differing needs of boys and girls to the benefit of both, but had come about through neglecting boys' needs.
In 1994, the NSW Government Advisory Committee on Education, Training and Tourism commissioned an inquiry into boys' education under Stephen O'Doherty. His report identified a range of reasons for concern and suggested ways to improve educational outcomes for boys. However, it was subjected to sustained attack from influential policy makers.
Sue Walpole, then federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, argued that attention to boys should be less focused on measurable disadvantages, and more concerned with "correcting" the poor behaviour of males.
Her attempt to divert attention from concerns for boys to concerns about boys seems to have been successful. By 2002 the Australian Council for Educational Research listed continuing deterioration of outcomes for boys in education and other social arenas linked to school experiences, including poor progress in literacy, higher drop-out rates and discipline problems.
The gender gap between boys and girls for participation in year 12 and higher education has continued to widen. Between 1993 and 1999, the proportion of female enrolments at university increased from 53.3 per cent to 55.2 per cent, while male enrolments decreased from 46.7 per cent to 44.8 per cent. Almost 50 per cent more females than males graduated from Australia's universities in 2006.
Given that the academic outcomes for girls were turned around in less than 10 years, it is worrying that 15 years after the first report on boys' education, the situation for boys is deteriorating. This suggests that efforts to improve educational outcomes for boys to date have been either misguided or poorly implemented. It is high time we start to fix the education systems that are failing our boys and young men so badly.
Greg Andresen Men's Health Australia,
Michael Woods University of Western Sydney