Education system is biased towards girls, yet we do nothing

December 22, 2012

The Weekend Australian, Saturday December 22, 2012

Australia’s feminised curriculum puts boys at a significant disadvantage

Angela Shanahan

IT is an experience I have relived eight times, the stomach churning anticipation as we wait in agony for the tertiary entrance results. But today the boy, my last at school, is not like that. No one waits for the post, twisting their hanky and muttering Hail Marys any more.

He screeches down the driveway with a cheery wave, P plates askew, posse of friends in tow, to collect the ATAR score. He already has a pretty good idea of his marks. Flunking is no problem these days because there are numerous ways to overcome that, and he won’t.

Anyway, he informs me, he is doing a gap year to get away from the “stress”. Although the source of this stress was not obvious to his mother and father, since the ACT doesn’t even have a public exam.

So education isn’t what it used to be. At least it isn’t for a lot of my son’s male contemporaries. Was it a big shock when you read that Australia is scoring very badly in international tests? It should not have been.

Australian children have been subject to haphazard experiments in reading and writing for a very long time. And not just reading and writing, but in all aspects of pedagogy and curriculum. The ones who have really suffered from all this are the boys.

It was recognised in 2002 that there was a real crisis in the education of boys. Brendan Nelson had an inquiry which produced an important report on the subject. But despite research confirming that boys are doing worse overall than girls, and despite some attempts by individual schools to rectify the problem, the crisis continues.

On just about every marker, including behaviour, boys score worse than girls. Lately they have even started to score worse than girls in their traditional strengths, like mathematics.

Yet you wouldn’t know it from the complacent attitude of most of the teaching profession. When I wrote about this in 2002 the then head of the Australian Education Union wrote a letter to The Australian complaining that my argument blaming this situation on contemporary education, particularly teaching methods, was wrong. Did I not know that there is a worldwide “crisis in masculinity”, not education? Silly me. In other words the boys just don’t know how to fit into this new female dominated world order — and they just should.

But now the attitude to boys’ failure has gone beyond defensive. From some quarters there is an almost callously celebratory attitude towards boys’ declining results.

This week I opened that journal of right-on feminism, The Sydney Morning Herald — whose survey of the most influential women in Australia excluded Gina Rinehart but included the Destroy the Joint website — to read this headline: “Their numbers are up: girls scoop the pool in HSC maths”. Apparently, more boys are actually doing maths than girls, but the newspaper was celebrating the fact that the girls won all the prizes.

The “female maths whizzes have defied the numbers”, crowed Granny, and a “clean sweep” of girls, or “young women” in PC fem-talk, received first-in-course awards for every mathematics course. In fact, the girls took two thirds of all the awards.

But the story got stranger. Rather than query why the top HSC performers are so unevenly represented among the girls, or ask what has happened to the boys’ results, we got this ignorant, fatuous comment from NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli: “I just think it is fantastic for the individuals and it’s fantastic for the broader community as well, where some of those traditional ideas about what girls should do well in and boys should do well in are breaking down . . . As a male I have to say it’s time for the boys to step back up and really be competitive.”

So get with the program, boys. You obviously were not listening to the Prime Minister when she berated the parliament and the Leader of the Opposition about sexism.

Until recently boys were clustered at the very top and at the very bottom of school performance statistics. Overall girls did well but were clustered in the middle. What we are seeing now is more boys going to the bottom and the bottom of the middle, while the girls head to the cluster at the top and at the top of the middle.

According to experts such as Kevin Donnelly, CIS’s Jennifer Buckingham and Peter West, an expert in boys’ education and development, this is because for too long both curriculum and pedagogy have been feminised. Education has been skewed to the psychological and physical development of the girls. And it begins at the beginning. NAPLAN shows a similar trend, with girls outstripping boys’ performance across the board.

One reason, according to Buckingham, is that the usual contemporary methods, things such as continuous assessment, more group work and the collaborative classroom, work well for girls. Their psychological development helps them fit into groups.

Boys are simply not so responsive to this collaborative element, particularly when they reach adolescence, and they have to collaborate with the girls too. They are also up to two years behind the girls’ emotional development. Add the fact that most teachers are women and the picture is a bit grim for young males.

Part of the rationale for the Nelson report was that in the 70s and 80s there was a big push for girls’ education and education experts everywhere were worried about going so far that boys were being inadvertently discriminated against. So why are we not more concerned about this, 10 years after it was identified as a problem?

According to Buckingham, perhaps one reason is that people have just got used to boys’ under-performance. It is not “news” any more.

Consequently boys are more marginalised than ever. Perhaps the PM, who we all know has a “passion” for education, might like to ponder this particular aspect of sexism in the holidays. That is if she can stop and think outside the feminist square. But I doubt it.



School presents a grim picture for young males

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