Boys' Education: is equity enough?

When the decision was taken to improve educational opportunities for girls, the result was a National Action Plan for the Education of Girls. Now that boys are lagging behind, the response is not an Action Plan for the Education of Boys, but a "gender equity strategy". This shift of emphasis is more than just semantic, says Peter Vogel.

In spite of the news that girls far out-performed boys in the HSC, and that the gap is widening every year, Education Minister John Aquilina continues to oppose a strategy specifically aimed at helping boys do better in school.

Mr Aquilina's Liberal predecessor, Virginia Chadwick, had set up a committee, chaired by Stephen O'Doherty, to report on the issues facing boys in schools. The O'Doherty enquiry produced a draft plan of action which was circulated to every school in the State for comment. In spite of being almost universally supported, implementation of the strategy ground to a halt with the change of government. Faced with the ever-increasing gap between boys' and girls' results, Mr Aquilina is finding it difficult to maintain the position that a boys' strategy is unnecessary. Attempting to defuse the issue, he announced last year that boys' problems are being addressed as part of a broader gender equity policy.

In reframing the problems of boys' education as an equity issue, Mr Aquilina risks encouraging the idea that it is a boys-versus-girls issue. As family therapist and author Steve Biddulph says, "Rather than playing 'more disadvantaged than thou' between the genders, we can recognise that boys and girls need different kinds of help. Schools, at present, by treating all students the same, aren't being fair to either gender".

Striving for equity is fine so long as it is understood that the objective is equal outcomes, rather than equal treatment. Given that boys are already in trouble and falling further behind each year, achieving equal outcomes will require affirmative action, where special attention is paid to boys' needs. To achieve equal employment opportunity for women, it was not good enough to simply say "all professions are now open to women"; to achieve equity of outcomes it was necessary to research all the reasons behind the observed facts and then to implement unequal actions. That is why there are organisations like the Office of the Status of Women, which currently spends $6 million per annum on projects for females only.

For boys, this process has yet to begin, and there is much work to be done.

In his submission to the O'Doherty enquiry, Richard Fletcher, Lecturer in Health Sciences at the University of Newcastle suggested specific questions that need to be answered:

  • Why don't boys elect to do English, Biology, History, Legal Studies, Society and Culture, Languages, Home Science,
  • Visual Arts and Music in the same numbers as girls?
  • Why do boys leave school at a higher rate than girls?
  • Why do girls outperform boys in almost every subject?
  • Why don't boys read?
  • Why are detention, suspensions, and disciplinary problems overwhelmingly boys' problems?
  • Why don't boys learn cooperatively?

While a gender equity policy could theoretically lead to investigations such as these being undertaken, the policy in which Mr Aquilina puts so much faith does not focus on boys in the same direct way the O'Doherty report does. In fact, the first draft of this policy, released for comment last November, says it "builds on the work already undertaken through the National Policy for the Education of Girls" - a pedigree which shines through.

The gender equity policy is based on the premise that females are oppressed by males, so it is impossible for boys to be disadvantaged. For example, the Terms of Reference include "to monitor the implementation of the National Action Plan for the Education of Girls" and "to provide advice on best practice in the education of boys as it relates to the education of girls". Other Terms of Reference refer to "gender equity" for girls but "gender issues" for boys. Other sections of the draft policy are similarly selective, such as the Historical Overview" which states that "girls are often disadvantaged by their school experiences" but makes no mention of the increasing gap between girls' and boys' academic performance.

While feminist analysis has been very valuable for pinpointing the areas that needed to be add ressed to overcome girls' educational obstacles, a new foundation needs to be constructed to correctly target boys.


Here are the higher school certificate results for NSW over the past 14 years:

The fact that boys are falling behind girls according to academic measures is good tangible proof that there is a problem; that boys could be doing better. Dr Peter West, Senior Lecturer in Education at University of Western Sydney, says that the statistics bear out what workers in the field have know for years: "I am constantly speaking to teachers, principals, and parents of boys, and they all tell me that many boys are in trouble". Dr West says: "My research suggests that working class boys, Aboriginal boys, boys who enrol too early in school, and some ethnic groups of boys are particularly at risk of scholastic failure".

Certainly, factors other than gender greatly influence academic achievement. For example, children on the North Shore do better than in the Western suburbs. However the reasons for this are hard to pin down, since there are many variables involved; parents' incomes and educational levels, quality of teaching etc. However the 1995 HSC statistics show that the gender gap occurred across all regions - girls are doing better than boys in public schools, private schools, rich suburbs, poor suburbs. No- one can deny that the 8 point TER gap is associated with gender.

Social class further compounds the problem. A study published last year by the University of Melbourne concluded that "as we descend the social scale, the gender gap widens", particularly evidenced in terms of subject choices. The more socially disadvantaged the parents, the more the children, both boys and girls polarise into the "traditional" subject areas. The most extreme example is in English, where boys from lower working-class background perform dramatically worse than girls of a similar background (17% below State average compared to 3% below).

The large sample size involved (about 60,000 students), the very large differentials and the increasing trend apart year-by-year make the conclusion even more convincing.


In the face of such clear evidence, it's hard to believe that Minister didn't immediately voice his concern and announce a high-powered enquiry. Had boys come out 8 points ahead of girls, he would not have been so quiet on the subject. Indeed, when it was shown twenty years ago how girls were disadvantaged at school, a major girls' education strategy was implemented. The potential of programmes targeting a particular group can be seen in the present turnaround.

Much of the credit for putting boys' education on the map goes to the NSW Parents and Citizens' Association, whose lobbying of the previous Minister is believed to have been the trigger for the O'Doherty investigation. The P&C was generally pleased with the O'Doherty report, and was relieved to think that finally something was going to happen. Executive Officer of the P&C, Warren Johnson, says that although the report is only a beginning, if offers some tangible, middle-ground directions, which most people were able to embrace. "We had high hopes" he said, "but unfortunately that agenda has been spiked politically. Mr Aquilina has never told us specifically what parts of the report he has problems with. It's obvious that the problem is that it was a Liberal initiative".

Stephen O'Doherty is now opposition education spokesman and agrees that this is why the government is dragging its feet. He said "I have promised the Government bipartisan support to implement this strategy, but the minister has taken the department's plans and hidden them in his bottom drawer."

Although Mr Aquilina denies that the boys' education strategy has become a political football, when a vote was taken in Parliament to implement the strategy, voting was strictly along party lines. To fend off the accusation that he is playing political games with our children's futures, Mr Aquilina has been trying to find supporters who will criticise the O'Doherty report. This has proved tough going, since the major players in education including the P&C and the schools themselves had no major problem with it.

What little opposition O'Doherty's boys' strategy has met has come from a minority of feminists, whose first objection was that helping boys could be at the expense of girls. This argument is hard to sustain, since O'Doherty, and indeed all the other proponents of a boys' education strategy, have always been very clear that they support the girls' education strategy, and that paying similar attention to boys must not diminish that effort.

Recently, some opponents of the boys' education strategy have resorted to more ideologically- based objections. To them, the very notion of males being disadvantaged is anathema. The idea that women must always be treated as the underdog is central to what feminist authors Naomi Wolf and Beatrice Faust call "victim feminism" .

Labor MLC Meredith Burgmann, admits that perhaps boys are losers, but she says that women are bigger losers. Speaking on SBS television's Insight she said that we are putting too much emphasis on boys lagging behind, and we should be concerned instead about women "still earning 35% less than men". She argues that even though girls outperform boys at school, schools are obviously not serving girls well since boys get the better, higher paid jobs. So, in spite of the figures, girls are the real victims.

Perhaps schools do not serve girls well, but they are obviously failing boys also. Although the academic gap between girls and boys is only a few TER points, if we look at broader indicators, the gap becomes a gaping chasm. According to the Australian Institute of Health and welfare, suicide rates are an indicator of mental health. In 1993, suicides of males (averaged over all ages) outnumbered females 4 to 1 - more males died from suicide than road deaths. More worrying still is fact is that boys commit suicide at over ten times the rate of girls. Boys are similarly over-represented in remedial classes, crime, accidental injury and violence, and will be rewarded for their "advantage" by dying years before the girls they went to school with.

Dr Victoria Foster, lecturer in Education at University of Western Sydney, pushed the victim concept to new heights when she responded to the news of girls' success by saying that girls might become victims of increased harassment in response to their better performance. As well as turning good news for girls into bad, she also explained how the bad news for boys was actually good; it gives boys "an opportunity to see girls in a new light" and that it will be "good for boys intellectual and social development."

The "victim feminists" represent only a small minority feminists. Many other feminists strongly support the need to help boys. However, the Minister relied heavily on advice from Victoria Foster in framing his rejection of the O'Doherty report. He cited Dr Foster's criticism of the report in the parliamentary debate, in spite of the fact that 24 of the report's 26 recommendations had previously been accepted by the Department of School Education. Perhaps the Department has got it wrong - after all, as Dr Foster suggestively pointed out in an academic paper, the manager of the Department's equity programme is for the first time a male.

In spite of the continuing support for a boys' education strategy from the Parents and Citizens' Association and the Department of School Education, the Minister chooses to listen to the few lone voices who might save him from admitting his real reason for shelving the O'Doherty report.


Irrespective of the terms in which the debate are couched for political expediency, improving boys' educational and social outcomes is going to require a long and consistent effort. A good starting point, Peter West suggests, would be to conduct a large-scale study of boys' attitudes, something he has been doing for some time, on a shoestring budget. "The starting point for the turnaround for girls was the 'Listening to girls' project [which interviewed hundreds of girls]. We need to do the same now with boys."

Warren Johnson warns there will be no wonder cure. "It's a long process. We're talking about who we are as social personas - the way we function in every waking moment - and that won't change overnight. It will require everyone, over a period of time, to shift ground. If we treat it like a crash diet, it will work like a crash diet. After the initial enthusiasm, we'll forget it all". He is concerned that in their response to the O'Doherty report, the Department of School Education spoke about the need to educate parents and students about gender issues, but didn't mention the need for professional development. "What most teachers know about gender and possibilities of changing notions of gender has come from outside their work situation. They have formed their own concepts of what it might mean in the classroom. We have to help teachers reassess their own understanding of gender and its relevance at school in a deliberate way - not just by what they happen to have read or seen on television".

Warren Johnson said that a lot of individual schools have given up waiting and are attacking the problems with some success, but they need the encouragement and support of the Department, and other schools need the benefit of those experiences. He said that the question of funding the O'Doherty strategy or any alternative has never been addressed. "Unless the Minister is prepared to show some leadership and say this is important, and have the dollars to back it up, it won't get anywhere".

With the benefit of having so successfully turned around girls' participation and performance in schools, we could have started addressing boys' issues five years ago, when the downward spiral became obvious. Perhaps if there were a male equivalent of the Office of the Status of Women spending $6 million a year advocating on behalf of boys the situation would not have been allowed to deteriorate this far.

In the absence of an Office of the Status of Men, it is up to mothers and fathers to let their representatives know in no uncertain terms that they value their sons as much as their daughters.

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