Boys: Getting it right?

Trish Gibson takes a look at the 2002 Commonwealth House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training report Boys: Getting it right.

Boys: Getting it right?

During October 2002, the Commonwealth House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training released its report on the inquiry into the education of boys, Boys: Getting it right. In many respects, the report sounds familiar. The issues discussed in this case, under the mantle of needing to be more responsive to the needs of males in formal schooling, have been with us for many years. Under the spotlight of ‘boys in crisis’, however, they appear to cast a different shadow and may, therefore, generate renewed energy from our policy-makers towards facilitating improvements and solutions.

The inquiry was a response to concerns from some quarters about the education of boys. Its stated aims were to examine evidence of boys’ disengagement from formal learning and the educational under-achievement of boys, and to evaluate strategies being used in schools to address these areas.

There were 231 written submissions to the inquiry and 235 witnesses appeared before the Committee. As a result, the Committee concluded that many of the concerns about boys’ education are justified and that these are not being adequately addressed within current frameworks. It recognised, however, that many schools and individual teachers are helping both boys and girls to achieve excellent outcomes. In addition, in drawing its conclusions, the Committee was careful to point out that the aim of the education system must be to maximise the achievement of all students. Efforts to improve educational outcomes for boys could be undertaken without threatening the gains made by girls in recent decades.

Four key areas are addressed within the structure of the report, with a number of recommendations attached to each:

  1. labour market, social and policy change;
  2. curriculum and pedagogy;
  3. literacy and numeracy; and
  4. schools, teachers and role models.

The report begins by considering school and post-school outcomes for boys. It questions a perceived resistance to addressing boys’ education issues. While acknowledging that the question “which boys and which girls?” is a valid one, the report contends that boys are underachieving compared to girls in almost every socio-economic group. The Committee’s first recommendation seeks to have MCEETYA revise and recast Gender Equity: A Framework for Australian Schools in a new, less narrow framework consistent with The Adelaide Declaration and reflecting the positive values expressed in that document.

In the area of curriculum and pedagogy, the report states that boys are more likely than girls to respond in negative ways to irrelevant curriculum and inadequate teaching. There is a recommendation that a major focus of preservice and inservice teacher education should be on better preparing teachers to develop balanced, effective and practical teaching strategies that will enable them to work with the differences and commonalties in the learning styles of boys and girls. Commonwealth, State and Territory governments are recommended to jointly fund additional professional development for practising teachers, particularly targeting strategies that work with boys.

The report underscores the link between poor achievement in literacy and numeracy and early school leaving, particularly for boys. Ten recommendations relate to literacy and numeracy, including one that seeks to direct the attention of new parents on the effect certain parenting styles may have on learning and behaviour, and the correlation between behavioural problems and learning difficulties. Several of the recommendations focus on issues of literacy pedagogy and intervention strategies. One seeks the provision of joint funding to staff every primary school with a Literacy Co-ordinator and an early intervention literacy teacher, the time allocation being determined by the size of the school and the measured level of literacy need. Another recommendation looks at reducing class sizes to no more than 20 students for Years K to 3.

Within the domain of ‘schools, teachers and role models’, the report highlights the importance of effective relationships between students, teachers and parents in achieving optimal educational outcomes for students–particularly for boys. A number of recommendations urge the funding of research into areas such as engagement and motivation of boys and girls in the middle years of schooling, and the influence of various school structures, curricula, assessment systems or alternatives to senior schooling on retention rates and student attitudes to school. Behaviour management is highlighted in this section of the report. There is also a recommendation to develop admission processes for teacher education programs that evaluate relevant personal attributes of candidates in addition to academic achievement. The provision of HECS-free scholarships for teacher education is also recommended.

In its conclusion to the report, the Committee acknowledges that responses to key issues in education are still too piecemeal. It points to the lack of consistency between States and Territories, and a lack of comparable data in attempts to develop approaches for dealing with issues, including the education of boys. Recommendations here include a review of all published national data to ensure their adequacy in informing government policy, and that Commonwealth funding provided in response to recommendations in the report be monitored to ensure that States and Territories do not reduce their own commitment in the face of Commonwealth grants.

And the Dangers of Getting it Wrong?
The Australian Education Senior Officers Committee (Directors-General) is currently responding to the report. A major initiative, the Lighthouse Schools Program is to be funded generously to identify national best practice in boys’ education. It is important to understand that, at around the same time as the release of the Boys: Getting it Right report, two other reports were released: Addressing the Educational Needs of Schools and Boys and Literacy and Schooling. These reports can be found on the Department of Education Science and Technology website: www.dest.gov.au. These two reports have been produced by some of Australia’s most experienced and respected researchers in the field, and deserve at least as much interest as the Getting it Right report. The Getting it Right report is based on submissions, some, but not all of them, based on research.

While the report contains a broad representation of opinions in the area of boys’ education, together with a range of excellent advice, probably the most troubling aspect of the Getting it Right report is its implicit acceptance of biological determinism. Because this is not out in the open, the report lacks clarity. We read of boys’ learning styles; boys are more vocationally oriented; boys prefer active environments, all, it seems, requiring a separate boys’ strategy, and separate research. In trying to encompass other theoretical explanations for under-achievement, lower retention rates, and emotional well-being issues, the report only achieves a great deal of ambiguity and contradiction.

The report is critical of “some gender equity units in departments, and education unions generally”, for being “reluctant to confront boys’ under-achievement and disengagement as an issue, for fear of undermining ongoing support for strategies for girls”. This has not been my experience of working in this field for many years. From the early 1990s, officers in Queensland have raised concerns the lack of clarity around the critical role of education can play, through curriculum and the civic life of the school, in achieving a more gender just society, in a context of striving for greater economic justice and justice for Indigenous people. Officers working in this area have, however, been reluctant to take on board some of the disingenuous, simplistic, counter-productive and under-researched strategies that have been proposed, usually in the context of media wars.

Because this report also ducks the issue of the role of education in achieving a more gender just society, it has difficulty coming to terms with the complex demands of our times. If resources are focussed on treating the symptoms without understanding the disease, resources will be wasted. The report aligns itself with the argument that strategies for girls were based on a political question about the role of women in society, but that boys’ concerns are not a political issue. Are the following pressures on boys not political issues?

  • to value emotional intelligence;
  • to be socially reflexive, especially in the context of relationships;
  • to be adaptable in the roles they take up in relation to paid work, family management and care giving;
  • to be able to think critically and independently in the face of the pressures to conform to gendered pressures;
  • to become personal and public advocates against relationship violence and abuse of children.

It would be breathtakingly naive to assume that there are no powerful forces militating against these changes. They are, therefore, political issues.

The issues and outcomes for boys in education are played out in the context of the gendered pressures and gendered relations endorsed by Australian communities. The strategies that have proven to be most effective in improving the learning outcomes of both boys and girls are those that engage both boys and girls, together with their teachers and communities, in critical investigations into the social factors that influence their own learning, relationships and choices. These approaches offer the most effective outcomes in enabling boys and girls to understand both local and global cultures, and to take greater control over the ways various cultures work through their lives.

Too hard? Take a look at the action research undertaken by early childhood students written up by Nola Alloway in Foundation Stone: The Construction of Gender in Early Childhood, published by the Curriculum Corporation for the Gender Equity in Curriculum Reform Project, 1995. The students became enthusiastic social critics, excited about being researchers of their own classrooms and learning behaviours.