Girl-Friendly/Boy Friendly

"We are becoming a society that fears it will never cross a bridge built by a woman but couldn't care less that its children may never be taught by a man".

Over the last decade schools have been made more "girl-friendly" as a result of lobbying by various feminist organisations; in 1989 the NSW Department of Education adopted a Girls' Education Strategy. Without an organised lobby promoting boys' interests, there has been no comparable drive for a Boys' Education Strategy. The struggle for recognition of boys' issues has been championed by a diverse group of academics, journalists, and, most importantly, concerned parents through the Parents and Citizens Association of NSW.

One influential spokesman for boys' educational needs is Peter West, Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Western Sydney. In 1992 he published his study of boys becoming men. When asked by the media how we could improve the outlook for men, his response was "We have to change the way we bring up boys." He is particularly concerned about the lack of research or academic study of masculinity: "I recall the moment when I found in the Australian National University Library catalogue the notation 'For men, see sex'. In four words, someone put into print a whole mindset about masculinity."

Peter West believes that we will never serve boys well until we understand masculinity in the same depth as we understand femininity. Radical feminists who dispute the need for men's studies and boys' educational strategies, arguing that "men have all the power", have missed the point. Men only maintain their power on the condition they behave in very limited ways: being tough and strong, providing for the family, and being as un-feminine as possible. "You don't have all the power if you can't walk down the street arm in arm with another man without fear of attack" he says.

One area of schooling in which this conditional male status is reinforced is sport. Peter West feels that many sports and Phys. Ed. teachers perpetuate boys' damaging attitudes towards themselves and girls. He cites a Phys. Ed. master who told a student: "Son, if you can't kick that ball properly, you'd better go home and put on your mother's dress".

One school brought a champion footballer to the school at great expense, in the hope of inspiring the boys. When a boy kicked a ball rather tentatively, the champ yelled: "what a horrible kick! Pull your pants down, son, and let's see your fanny".

Richard Fletcher, lecturer in Health Sciences at the University of Newcastle, has also been talking about raising boys to be more compassionate, more completely human. He has been researching the connection between boys' high death rates, violence and their schooling and social conditioning. He is concerned that the existing non-sexist school programmes which target girls are not necessarily appropriate for boys. Richard Fletcher believes that some of these inadvertently reinforce the idea that the traditionally "male" subjects are better than the "female" ones: "When teachers express concern that girls are not interested in physics, while ignoring boys' lack of interest in languages for example, a clear message is conveyed that physics is valuable while languages are not".

He shares Peter West's belief that an understanding of boys' needs cannot be gained from the existing body of gender theory or knowledge; that serious study needs to be conducted. "The recent push for a girl-friendly curriculum implies that the existing offerings are boy-friendly. This is not true and we can expect that addressing boy-shy subjects will be just as complex as encouraging girls into maths and physics has proved to be. Attempting to entice boys into history through The History of Warfare would be just as inappropriate as offering Kitchen Physics to girls"

In his submission to the recent Inquiry into Boys' Education, Richard Fletcher suggested that we need a boys' education strategy to answer the following questions:

  • 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 apart from maths?
  • Why don't boys read?
  • Why are detention, suspensions, and disciplinary problems overwhelmingly boys' problems?
  • Why don't boys learn cooperatively?

Richard Fletcher made a significant submission to the Boys' Education Inquiry, offering a model policy based on the Girl's Education Strategy. There is considerable overlap between the girls' policy and his proposed boys' policy, and he emphasises that the boys' policies would also positively influence girl's educational outcomes.

Feminisation of Schools

A common concern among proponents of a boys' strategy is the lack of male role models. In early years, almost all teachers are female. Richard Fletcher says: "Traditionally men have been involved in their schools through working bees or on committees. More recently businessmen have been targeted for inclusion in school activities. For improving boys' schooling, this stereotyping of males as only useful for building, bossing, and business needs to be challenged. Men need to be involved in the full range of human capacities inherent in males."

Respected feminist Dr Josephine Milne-Home says: "Unfortunately education has become a feminised profession. We need more compassionate and caring men in teaching; the research says that men tolerate more noise and activity from children. There's too much emphasis on sitting still and making pretty pictures".

Peter West received a letter from a single mother of a 12 year old concerned about lack of role models: "The Principal and the Deputy are the only males in the school, excluding the janitor... The flavour and atmosphere of the school is what I call a hen club. The female teachers are most influential and vociferous. The norm for child behaviour is that of girls.... It is difficult raising a male child single handedly. I expected some assistance from the school when he first started attending. I thought he would have access to male role models. Unfortunately I was very wrong".

NSW Takes the Lead

In March 1994, largely as a result of pressure from the NSW Parents & Citizens Federation, the NSW Minister for Education Virginia Chadwick announced an inquiry to examine the special educational needs of boys.

When the discussion paper on the Strategy was released (see story next page), Ros Brennan, the President of the P&C association, supported it enthusiastically. She said that boys entering puberty feel they are unable to communicate, unable to express opinion. They avoid academic success, and have a high rate of suicide. "The stereotypes which up to now have constrained our girls have done just as much inestimable damage to our men. Parents have an important role to play in establishing gender as something that is there to help us rather than impede us. Parents can provide a home backdrop that acknowledges that children are different from one another but that the difference doesn't imply a deficit."

Given the support the Strategy has received from academics, parents, and P&C associations, the new NSW Labor Minister for Education will certainly pick up where Virginia Chadwick left off and ensure its speedy implementation.

Letters to the press about boys' education

Highlights of the proposed Boys' Education Strategy

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