The feminization of education reaps its inevitable rewards. It starts in primary school with the idea that boys are inherently disgusting, obnoxious, violent, and disrespectful, and asking them to sit the heck down during class and pay attention to the teacher. It is a system where boys are punished for behaving like boys and have few if any male teacher role models
Boys are falling far behind girls in school-leaving exams and at university to the extent that a University Admissions Centre (UAC) analysis of results found that being male was “greater than any of the other recognised disadvantages we looked at”.
The centre looked at Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and first-year university grade point average data and found the gender education gap persisted across socio-economic quartiles at both senior school and university levels.
Educators said there could be many factors at play, including different maturity levels, the compulsory inclusion of English in the HSC, which tended to favour girls, the declining popularity of difficult maths and sciences, and the increase in the school-leaving age.
Jennifer Buckingham, a reading expert who has studied the gender education gap in a previous role at the Centre for Independent Studies, said all jobs, including trades, now needed workers with strong literacy and numeracy skills. “The options for boys who don’t do well at school are becoming fewer and fewer,” she said.
“The expectations of what they can achieve change, they set their sights lower, and there are economic consequences of that too.”
The UAC analysis of ATAR data over many years, but particularly from 2020, found there was gender parity at the top end of the ATAR scale, above 98, and at the bottom end, below 39, but boys were far outnumbered by girls in the middle range.
The analysis said boys were under-represented due to a “combination of boys not performing as well as girls placed at similar points in the gender ability spectrum, and, more importantly, boys choosing study patterns that do not make them eligible for an ATAR or an HSC”.
The centre’s analysis found an ATAR-aged boy was 16.3 per cent less likely to obtain an HSC qualification than a girl in the same group, and 15 per cent less likely to complete at least one subject in 2020 than girls. “The effect of being male was greater than any of the other recognised disadvantages we looked at,” the analysis found.
The gap persists into university, the UAC analysis found, with boys enrolling at lower rates, less likely to pass all their subjects, and more likely to fail everything. The issue was across socio-economic quartiles.
NSW Department of Education data also show boys are also more likely to skip school. Attendance among high school girls is more than 82 per cent, compared with less than 73 per cent for boys. Boys also represent 70 per cent of school suspensions.
Robin Nagy, the director of Academic Profiles, which examines data for the independent sector, said the gap could be partly due to NSW requiring English to count towards a fifth of a student’s HSC mark. “On average, girls would appear to benefit more from this requirement than boys, due to the archetype of girls performing better in English,” he said.
Female enrolments outnumber male ones in the harder English subjects, which scale to higher ATAR marks, and boys were over-represented in easier subjects.
Craig Petersen, the head of the Secondary Principals Council, which represents public school principals, said there had also been significant efforts over several decades to ensure girls were catered to in HSC examinations.
“In response to the research that shows girls respond better to narrative questions, we started seeing scientific or mathematical problems voiced as a story,” he said.
This so-called “feminisation” of the HSC physics and chemistry syllabuses, in particular, was wound back in the most recent revision of the syllabuses, released in 2018, which had greater focus on mathematical applications and less on sociology-based content.
Petersen said boys also matured more slowly than girls; the prefrontal cortex, which helps people understand the consequences of their actions, does not finish developing for boys until 25. “That may be the area that says, ‘I want to have a good job, therefore I need to study hard’.”
The decision to raise the school-leaving age to 17 about a decade ago also meant boys who would once have left after year 10 for a trade were now staying on, Petersen said. “[Some] fall into this malaise, they don’t really want to be there, aren’t motivated,” he said.
Melissa Abu-Gazaleh is the managing director of the Top Blokes Foundation, which advocates addressing the health and wellbeing of young men to increase their engagement in school.
She said many young men were still tied to the stereotype that they should not express vulnerability or seek help, and expressed their frustration in outbursts, which led to disciplinary action.
“This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where the male student then has lower aspirations to be better or achieve more,” she said. Giving male students a different message about seeking help and positive role models would help, she said.
Concerned that boys needed more help, Dapto High principal Andrew FitzSimons appointed a boys’ mentor, Andrew Horsley, who works with the Top Blokes Foundation and local service providers to ensure boys get the support they need.
“For me, it’s all about developing connections,” Horsley said. “With boys, sometimes you need to spend a bit of time and effort and energy to develop those connections, and then they’ll feel safer, if they’re struggling with something.”