A tale of two crises in education

Dr Michael Johnston
NZ Herald
11 May, 2022

There’s a crisis that everyone’s talking about. Far too many Māori and Pacific young people are not thriving in our education system. The Ministry of Education has undertaken numerous initiatives over many years to turn this around. Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence of success.

A recent report from the Education Hub cited data from the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA). In reading, Year 4 Māori students average about one year of expected progress lower than other students in Year 4. In writing, the difference is even greater. By Year 8, the differences in both skills had grown, not shrunk. Lower average literacy attainment at primary level flows through the system for Māori. NZQA data show far lower attainment of University Entrance by Māori and Pacific students than European or Asian students.

In New Zealand and internationally, students from wealthier families tend to do better at school than less well-off students. There are various reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is the educational capital of parents. Wealthier parents tend to be well-educated and equipped to support their children’s education. Family background variables explain most of the variation in educational achievement between school deciles.

Māori and Pacific students are much more likely to live in poverty than other students, and many of their parents had negative experiences at school themselves. This may partly explain why the Ministry of Education has made little progress in improving things for these students. Many of the factors behind their lower average achievement are probably associated with socio-economic disadvantage. 

Another crisis in education – one that no one is talking about and that has nothing to do with economic disparities – is the crisis affecting boys.

The NMSSA data cited in the Education Hub report show that boys average below girls in reading and writing. The differences between the genders in reading in Year 4 is smaller than that between Māori and non-Māori, but the gender difference in writing is even greater.

The NZQA annual report shows that only a third of boys leave school with University Entrance, compared with nearly half of girls. This disparity flows through to tertiary qualifications: In 2020, nearly two thirds of New Zealanders completing qualifications at Bachelor’s level or higher were women.

The reasons for boys lagging behind girls in education are not well understood. This is partly because our education agencies seem utterly uninterested in finding them out. In stark contrast to the educational differences between ethnic groups, there’s little mention of boys’ lower average attainment on the Education Ministry’s website, and virtually nothing suggests it’s a problem. It seems that educational underachievement by boys is business as usual as far as the Ministry is concerned.

The number of initiatives the Ministry currently has going to address the educational underperformance of boys is precisely zero. This is odd because boys and girls come in equal proportion from all communities and cultural backgrounds. Whatever is holding boys back can be sheeted home to the education system itself.

There’s evidence that one group of schools is doing a much better job for boys than average. A report published by the Association of Boys’ Schools of New Zealand (ABSNZ) shows that boys in single-sex schools gain all three levels of NCEA and University Entrance at substantially higher rates than boys in co-educational schools.

One potential explanation for the single-sex school advantage is that it’s a socio-economic advantage in disguise. Single-sex schools tend to be high decile and their students tend to come from more privileged backgrounds. But actually, the ABSNZ report showed the greatest advantages of attending single-sex schools were for Māori boys and boys at low decile schools.

In drawing attention to the ABSNZ report, I’m not particularly advocating for single-sex education. There’s a lot to be said for boys and girls mixing at school. My point is that, rather than studiously ignoring the crisis in boys’ education, the Ministry might do well to commission research into why boys in single-sex education are doing so much better than their peers in co-educational schools.

Do single-sex schools tend to employ more male teachers than co-educational schools? Is it something about the culture of boys’ school in which boys seem to thrive? Are they more inclined to focus productively when girls are not around to show off to? It could be any of these things or something entirely different.

The Ministry's apparent lack of interest in the matter is almost as much of a mystery as the cause of boys’ educational underachievement. But whether it remains the crisis that no one’s talking about is up to us all. Parents, especially those with sons, should start talking about it – loudly. There is an election next year and nothing focusses on politicians’ minds like an opportunity to gain votes.


Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates