The O'Doherty Report

"The myth that boys in schools are always in the winner's box and girls need affirmative action programs as catch-ups is now being increasingly questioned as it becomes more and more obvious that boys, like girls, have their human and individual freedoms of choice limited by longstanding notions of gender and behaviour" Gail Nichols, Editor, Parent & Citizen, January 1994.

New South Wales looks set to become the first State to address the educational needs of boys as a result of last year's Inquiry into Boys' Education. The inquiry, initiated by the NSW Minister for Education Virginia Chadwick, was established to examine girls' education strategies across Australia, and make recommendations on the future focus of gender equity programs in NSW education, with particular reference to the needs of boys.

The inquiry represents a landmark for Australian education, being the first concerted effort to address the problems boys face in school. It came about largely in response to pressure from the NSW Parents & Citizens Federation. The editorial of "Parent and Citizen" magazine of January 1994 roundly condemned the Director-General of Education for failing to respond to the widespread call for action. The strong position taken by the P&C Federation made it difficult for the Minister to ignore this issue any longer.

The Inquiry was announced in March 1994. In July, "Four Corners" featured the boys' education debate. Various radio programmes took up the theme, and it soon became clear that even people previously unconvinced of the need for a boys' strategy were now in favour of it. In November, feminist journalist Adele Horin wrote that she had changed her mind. Like all feminists, she wanted to encourage girls, but as the mother of a boy, she wanted her son to learn compassion and thoughtful masculinity, and to have a long, healthy, life. Many mothers with children of school age have realised that the education system is not serving boys well.

In the discussion paper, chairman Stephen O'Doherty, MP writes:

" I am convinced that the problems of boys [in education] are real and they demand system-wide solutions. They are parallel to - but are not the same as - the problems of girls. They can be attributed to a similar cause... The aim is to remove artificial barriers of gender which prevent all students from having a rewarding and fulfilling experience of education according to their ability... ".

The Executive Summary lists the major areas of concern about boys' education:

"These include lower retention to Year 12 and poorer academic outcomes compared with girls. Boys are over-represented in programs for students with learning problems, particularly problems with literacy. Students identified as having behaviour problems are overwhelmingly boys.. A key concern is boys' lack of dispute resolution skills coupled with the notion among many boys that physical confrontation is an appropriate way to resolve conflict. Some boys not only harass girls but seem unaware of the true impact of their behaviour. The lack of appropriate male role models in the media and the lack of male classroom teachers in primary schools were frequently raised as important issues."

Action Plan

Some recommendations of the inquiry -

  • NSW should develop a Gender Equity Strategy in education. It should include programs for boys, programs for girls, and programs for both boys and girls.
  • Programs should be developed to involve all parents, and fathers in particular, and also the wider community as active participants in children's education.
  • The Gender Equity Program should encompass school discipline and programs of sex-based harassment and violence
  • Boys should be encouraged to study humanities, such as music, art, drama, dance, debating and languages.
  • More men should be encouraged into primary school teaching and more women into executive positions in education.
  • Gender equity education should include the study of what it is to be "male" or "female" in our society, relationships, media images of men and women, peer group pressure, self-image and self-esteem, the nature of power in relationships, conflict resolution, understanding the opposite sex, the things we value in relating to each other and from individuals around us.

Where to now?

The Department of School Education has issued a response to the Inquiry which is substantially in agreement with every recommendation. This response has been circulated to every school in N.S.W. for comment.

Meanwhile, N.S.W. has a new Labor government. In his position as shadow Minister for Education, Stephen O'Dohery will no doubt ensure that the new Minister, John Aquilina, maintains the momentum for implementing the Boys' Strategy.

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