Towards a boy-friendly education system

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Boys Education
Males in education system (Credit: Pexels Library)

Ireland’s boys and young men are under-performing in first- and second-level education. And males now form a shrinking minority of entrants to third-level.

An eight-page document entitled The Boy Crisis in Education has been submitted by Men’s Voices Ireland to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills of the Oireachtas.

The submission outlines a wealth of literature which shows that boys are struggling in school at all levels and underachieving in comparison to girls.

Education submission

The Men’s Voices Ireland submission outlines the findings of various international studies which have revealed the following factors that contribute to boy’s educational disadvantage:

  • Fatherlessness is a huge problem and is strongly correlated with a range of negative behaviour problems
  • The feminisation of teaching methods, the classroom and syllabi.
  • Devaluation of masculinity and gender shaming.

You can see a copy of the submission here in PDF format.

Some startling facts:

  • The early school leavers rate among women aged 18-24 in 2010 was 8.4%, the male rate was 12.6%, a 50% higher rate.
  • Women are more likely to have a third-level qualification, (53%), compared with 39% for men.
  • In universities, the female: male ratio is at or close to 60:40.
  • The imbalance is worst in subjects such as Law, Medicine, Medicine-related disciplines, Education, Languages, Social Sciences, Veterinary Science.
  • The feminisation of the teaching profession: In 2012 85% of primary teachers were female, 68% of secondary teachers were female.
  • For boys barriers to learning were evident by early secondary school and had been present in primary school.

The following are some reports and articles on how males are disadvantaged in education.

Taking Boys Seriously, Northern Ireland report

Undertaken by Ken Harland and Sam McReady at the Centre for Young Men’s Studies at Ulster University, and funded by the Departments of Education and Justice in Northern Ireland, Taking Boys Seriously is a five-year research project.

Boys Education Report - Northern Ireland
Report: Taking Boys Seriously (Credit: Ulster University)

Below are some recommendations from this report:

Barriers to Learning: Teachers believed that barriers to learning were usually evident by, and within Year 8, and had been present in primary school.

Recommendation: Barriers to learning should be addressed as early as possible (eg primary school) and stronger links between primary and post-primary schools, parents and local communities should be developed to support transferring pupils and address issues.

Low confidence in educational pathways: Boys expressed a lack of belief that success in school would actually lead to a job and fears of debt if they go to university. They were being unprepared for key transitional stages during adolescence. Also, boys felt alienated within their communities and disconnected from the world of adults. And there is an absence of gender specific approaches possibly due to lack of evidence of their effectiveness

Recommendation: Further research into gender specific teaching should be carried out.

Construction of masculinity: The ways in which adolescent males construct their understanding of masculinity and being a man in early to mid-adolescence is complex, negotiated and renegotiated according to age, location and a range of wider social factors. This process has important implications for understanding adolescent male behaviour and attitudes towards education and learning.

Recommendation: Boys should explore, reflect and develop a critical understanding of masculinity, and within this should be encouraged to challenge dominant and stereotypical notions of masculinity that can impact negatively upon themselves and others. Also, boys would benefit from having a specific pedagogy during their development to assist their understanding of what it means to be a man and to celebrate masculinity.

Teacher/pupil relationships: The nature of teacher/pupil relationship is a primary factor in boys’ motivation and attitudes towards learning. While this relationship is important for all young people, it was the primary factor in determining the extent to which these boys engaged with lessons and it influenced their expectations as to how well they would do in subjects.

Recommendation: Youth work methodologies should be utilised as appropriate.

At a University of Plymouth seminar looking at engaging with boys in schools, report co-author Dr Ken Harland said:

“We are dealing with the fact that schools are failing boys. 70% of learning is outside school, meaning it takes a community to educate a child. The first step is to simply talk to boys about their needs.

“40% of boys entering secondary school are unable to read and write. They have reduced social skills, verbal skills and feel marginalised. This has an emotional impact on them and the people around them, eventually leading to increased problems in mental health, wellbeing and suicide.”

“We really wanted to hear the voice of the boys and learn about their lives and their issues. We questioned 400 boys in 9 primary schools and the boys responded well.”

With the decline of traditional industry in Northern Ireland and the shift in favour of new knowledge economies, the value of education is arguably greater than it ever has been.

While for several decades boy’s underachievement has regularly been raised as a problem it was extremely difficult for the research team to find specific strategies addressing boys’ underachievement.

It is widely acknowledged that much of what young people learn occurs outside of formal education.

In his review of research evidence in Northern Ireland, Gallagher (1997; 1998) concluded that boys ‘apparent’ underachievement was probably as a result of testing and assessment and a ‘possible’ anti-school culture among boys. Drawing heavily from Murphy and Elwood (1996), Gallagher highlighted gender differences in, for example, styles of writing and the way these are then assessed as accounting for some of the gender gaps in exam results.

A brief review was produced for the Northern Ireland Assembly (2001) exploring the ‘gender gap and looking to ‘prevent underachievement amongst boys.’ This drew from a random selection of 24 studies from England, Scotland, and New Zealand and suggested a range of issues including the lack of male teachers; gender stereotyping by teachers; assessment favouring girls; boys rejecting authority and girls co-operation as contributing factors in boys underachievement.

Boys spoke of feeling increasingly alienated within their communities and experiencing higher levels of suspicion and distrust directed towards them by adults. Throughout the study boys struggled to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable levels of violence.
It is estimated that a young person will spend around 16% of their time in a classroom over the year and as Dyson (2006) states the young person will learn 30% within the school and 70% outside of the school.

An OECD study Trends shaping Education has this to say

Aiming for a better balance of men and women among teachers can nevertheless have positive effects on all students. Male teachers can serve as role models and contribute to students developing positive gender identities, particularly for those students who do not have many positive male role models in their lives.

Some countries are actively seeking to increase the numbers of male teachers. In the UK for example, the Training and Development Agency (TDA) has made a specific effort to recruit qualified male primary teachers.

Another OECD study,The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour and Confidence says of school results:

Teachers give girls higher marks than boys of a similar ability. The suggestion is because girls are more likely to be better behaved in class, they are seen as being better at the subject and their results are marked up.

Boys far behind girls at reading while at school, but gap closes among adults.

Boys are more likely to spend time playing videogames than girls and are less likely to spend time on homework.

Women and Men in Ireland, Central Statistics Office, 2013

Among the findings published in this official government report were the following:

  • The early school leavers rate among women aged 18-24 in 2010 was 8.4%, which was much lower than the male rate of 12.6%.
  • In 2011, more girls obtained an A or B on the honours paper in the Leaving Certificate exams in English, Irish, French, Biology, Chemistry, Art and Music while more boys obtained an A or B on the honours paper in Maths, Physics, Construction studies and Engineering.
  • Men accounted for nearly five-sixths of third-level graduates in Engineering, manufacturing and construction and 57% of graduates in Science, while women accounted for 82% of graduates in Health and welfare, 74% in Education and 63% in Arts and humanities.
  • Women are more likely to have a third-level qualification, with over half (53%) of women aged 25-34 having a third-level qualification compared with nearly four out of ten men (39%) in this age group
  • Women represented 53.5% of all third-level graduates in Ireland in 2012. 31.2% of female graduates were in social sciences, business and law while just under one quarter (24.6%) were in health and welfare.
  • Three out of ten male graduates were in social sciences, business and law while 22.6% were in engineering, manufacturing and construction.
  • Women represented nearly four out of five (78.6%) graduates in the health and welfare field and three-quarters (75.1%) of graduates in education.
  • The vast majority (85%) of graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction were male.

Particularly revealing were the relative changes between the educational attainment of males and females over time.

CSO Stats Education
Male and female educational attainment (Credit: Central Statistics Office)

As can be seen from the above tables, the percentage of men and women aged 25-34 with a third-level qualification increased over the period 2004-2013.

The percentage of men with a third-level qualification fell from 35.6% in 2004 to 33.2% in 2006. Since then the percentage has increased steadily to stand at 42.7% in 2013, a rise of 7.1 percentage points since 2004.

There was a considerably larger increase for women aged 25-34 with a third-level qualification, from 42.4% in 2004 to 55.3% in 2013, an increase of 12.9 percentage points.

More women aged 18-24 have a third level qualification than men and this gap widened between 2004 and 2013 from 6.8 to 12.6 percentage points.

The report also highlighted the feminisation of the teaching profession:

  • At primary level 85% of teachers are female. This has remained roughly the same since 2003.
  • At secondary level the percentage of male teachers has fallen steadily at first and later precipitously from 40% in 2003 to 31.7% in 2012.

Boys disadvantaged on first day at school

Research led by Professor Christopher Cornwell at the University of Georgia has found that a heavily feminist-driven education paradigm systematically favours girls and disadvantages boys from their first days in school.

Examining student test scores and grades of children in kindergarten through fifth grade, Cornwell found that boys in all racial categories are not being “commensurately graded by their teachers” in any subject “as their test scores would predict.”

Chris Cornwell UGA Boy's Education
Chris Cornwell research report (Credit: University of Georgia)

The answer lies in the way teachers, who are statistically mostly women, evaluate students without reference to objective test scores. Boys are regularly graded well below their actual academic performance.

Boys are falling significantly behind in grades, “despite performing as least as well as girls on math tests, and significantly better on science tests.”

After fifth grade, he found, student assessment becomes a matter of “a teacher’s subjective assessment of the student’s performance”, and is further removed from the guidance of objective test results. Teachers, he says, tend to assess students on non-cognitive, “socio-emotional skills.” This has had a significant impact on boys’ later achievement because, while objective test scores are important, it is teacher-assigned grades that determine a child’s future with class placement, high school graduation and college admissibility.

Eliminating the factor of “non-cognitive skills…almost eliminates the estimated gender gap in reading grades”, Cornwell found. He said he found it “surprising” that although boys out-perform girls on math and science test scores, girls out-perform boys on teacher-assigned grades.

The report also found that:

  • At primary level 85% of teachers are female. This has remained roughly the same since 2003.
  • At secondary level the percentage of male teachers has fallen steadily at first and later precipitously from 40% in 2003 to 31.7% in 2012.

The War Against Boys

The American thinker Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the book The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, wrote in The Atlantic that:

“The idea that schools and society grind girls down has given rise to an array of laws and policies intended to curtail the advantage boys have and to redress the harm done to girls. That schools and society grind girls down is something ‘everyone is presumed to know’ But it is not true. Why has that belief persisted, enshrined in law, encoded in governmental and school policies, despite overwhelming evidence against it?”

Sommers traces it back to the work of one academic feminist, Carol Gilligan, a pioneer of ‘gender studies’ at Harvard University. “Most of Gilligan’s published research, however, consists of anecdotes based on a small number of interviews.”

Sommers has identified the work of Gilligan and her followers as “politics dressed up as science” and points out that she has never released any of the data supporting her main theses.

Christina Hoff Sommers: The War Against Boys

UK: Why are fewer boys going to university?

A report in August 2015 by the UK’s Independent Commission on Fees uncovered a widening gender divide in university admissions. For whilst over a third of 18-year old girls enrol on a higher education course in Britain, only one quarter of boys follow suit.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Jonathan Wells asked: So why are fewer male students applying for university courses?

Daily Telegraph Boy's Education
UK males falling behind (Credit: Daily Telegraph)

Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, undergraduate courses at university and college UK, believes the “potential of young men is somehow being let down by the school system”. This suggests that the methods and techniques used to prepare pupils for their GCSEs and A-levels are angled more towards female students, and that schools and sixth forms may not be preparing boys adequately enough for these academic hurdles.

Wells continues:

“Additionally, recent years have seen a steady growth of campaigns encouraging female students to pursue higher education. After it was discovered that only 13 per cent of STEM (scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical) courses were populated by women, a considerable push has been made to raise these numbers. However, no such corresponding campaigns have been launched to encourage either working class or disillusioned young men into university.

“And this is despite Universities Minister David Willetts claiming, two years ago, that the government needed to target working class boys for university places in the same way that the institutions are obligated to fill quotas for ethnic minorities and other under-represented groups. It’s feasible that the gender divide we now face is a direct result of girls having been targeted more actively for places than boys…

“But in a climate eager to dispel any suspicion of misogyny, these once male-dominated institutions are now overcompensating by offering girls opportunities that simply aren’t available to the male student population.
What is clear is that despite acknowledging this gap, the government and the universities themselves appear untroubled or simply indifferent to the divide.”

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