Boys’ underachievement at school is a problem for everyone

Dr Michael Johnston
Bali Haque
The Post, The Press and Waikato Times
24 October, 2023

As we digest the results of the election and contemplate the future, it is an opportune time to shine a light on an educational and social timebomb that was completely ignored during the campaign.

Young men, many of them barely literate, fill our prisons and dominate our suicide statistics. At the same time, in our schools and communities, there is growing evidence that increasing numbers of boys and young men are turning to misogynist influencers such as Andrew Tate.

At least part of the explanation lies with our education system. Back in the 1970s, across the Western world, male and female achievement in secondary qualifications was broadly similar, although more men than women participated in tertiary study.

Around the mid-1980s, though, female students caught up with, and then surpassed, male students on both of these indices.

Now, in every developed country including New Zealand, female students are outperforming male students at every level of education, in almost every subject. The only exception, in some countries, is that male students retain an advantage in mathematics and the physical sciences.

The gap between the sexes in reading and writing is of particular concern. OECD test data have shown a consistent and significant male deficit in literacy for many years.

Poor literacy presents a major barrier to accessing broader educational opportunities. Male underachievement in literacy, then, may well explain male underachievement more generally.

For example, just 32% of male students who commenced Year 11 in 2020 had achieved university entrance (UE) by the end of 2022 compared with 45% of female students. That is a significant and worrying gap.

Crucially, relatively poor school outcomes for boys flow on to tertiary education. The data are compelling. Including both vocational and academic programmes, for every two men enrolled in tertiary programmes, there are three women.

Study at bachelor’s degree level shows a similar gap. Drilling into specific domains of study, woman outnumber men across the board, other than in engineering, IT, forestry and building studies.

The legal profession provides a useful illustration of change. Currently there are roughly equal numbers of male and female lawyers practising in New Zealand. However the split of those coming into the profession signals big changes ahead. In 1980, just over 26% of new lawyers were female. In 2021, it was 72%.

One response to this situation may be, so what? Some commentators would note that a pay gap still exists in favour of men, and that men continue to “run things”, especially in the top echelons of power.

There are at least two problems with arguments like these.

First, arguing that men “do better” than women, post school, or that the patriarchy is alive and well, doesn’t help boys who have been failed by the education system.

A disproportionate number of such boys have grown up in poverty and or other challenging circumstances. Telling them about the pay gap and pointing out that men still “run things” won’t wash.

Second, every year a substantial cohort of young men leaves school poorly equipped to deal with an increasingly challenging social and economic environment. It is these young men who are most vulnerable to adopting extreme and destructive views.

The response of successive New Zealand governments, of both colours, has been to ignore the issue. The Ministry of Education currently has no initiatives in place to address the underachievement of boys and no intention of changing that. Their focus instead is on poor educational outcomes for Māori and Pasifika.

Their thesis seems to be that, if we can address the poor achievement of Māori and Pasifika, we will also address the issue of boys’ underachievement since many failing boys are Māori.

A focus on Māori is clearly important. However, many boys of other ethnicities are also being let down by our education system. In fact, girls in any demographic group achieve more highly in education than boys in the same demographic group. Asian girls do better than Asian boys. Rich girls do better than rich boys. And so on.

The ministry’s ethno-centric approach, then, leaves too many questions unanswered. Does our curriculum or our approach to assessment disadvantage boys? Does the fact that boys are raised increasingly by single mums, and go to primary schools staffed predominantly by female teachers matter? Do teachers unconsciously favour students of their own gender? Do boys get the message from their teachers that they are not as good at learning as girls? Do behavioural factors for boys impact on how they are perceived as learners? Does the very culture of modern coeducational schools disadvantage boys?

We don’t know the answers to all of these questions, although there is some national and international research to draw on. What is clear, though, is that successive ministers of education pretending we don’t have a boy problem will yield terrible outcomes for us all.

It is to be hoped that the incoming minister will take the issue more seriously.

To read the article on The Post website, click here.

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