Boys and girls: redressing the balance

According to a recent international study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), teachers are giving girls higher marks than boys in school-based assessments, not simply because they are brighter but because they are being rewarded for such attributes as attentiveness, eagerness and organisational skills. The study also suggests that socio-economically advantaged students fare better than their less fortunate peers.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which was started in 1997, aims to evaluate education systems in more than 70 countries around the world by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. Guyana has not participated in PISA and, indeed, of Caribbean countries, only Trinidad and Tobago has, although no specific data or reports for that country are available on the OECD/PISA website.

In recent years, the little data available for Guyana and the Caribbean, as well as anecdotal evidence, would seem to suggest that, even though there is universal access to primary and secondary education, girls are outperforming boys at secondary school entrance examinations and at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC). In addition, boys are more likely than girls to drop out of secondary school and it seems that more girls than boys are now going on to university.

All this is cause for serious concern among educators and development planners, not to mention social workers and police services, in Guyana and across the region, as the marginalisation of boys and young men appears to be contributing to lower levels of employment and productivity, increased anti-social behaviour and outright criminality.

Education experts, sociologists and psychologists among others all have various theories to explain why girls are generally doing better than boys, but the debate in the Caribbean does not yet appear to have produced an implementable plan to address the problem.

Of course, it is widely accepted that girls mature physically, emotionally and cognitively, faster than boys. This does not, however, mean that girls are more intelligent than boys, just as how the gender-imbalanced educational structures of the past, which discriminated against girls, did not mean that boys then were more intelligent than girls. They just had more and better opportunities to shine. Now, the boot may be on the other foot.

If we accept that boys and girls of the same age are not equal as they are growing up, then it is perhaps unfair that boys and girls should be subject to equal testing at school, especially if this is compounded by subjective perceptions as suggested by the above-mentioned OECD/PISA study. Obviously, a more objective form of assessment is necessary, but how to achieve this without taking a retrograde step and relying solely on stress-inducing examinations? Perhaps, the first step could be to ensure that the performance of boys at school is not measured against that of girls but this would suggest a review of co-education.

By introducing co-education in Guyana, in 1975, presumably to make our inherited education system more equitable, did the government of the day perhaps err with regard to the long-term and, to be fair, the then unforeseeable impact on boys? Are boys today and we as a society reaping the bitter fruit of what was at the time a genuinely progressive move, unfortunately undermined by years of political, economic and social challenges, which have, inter alia, led to a disproportionate number of female teachers in the education system at the same time that our society has experienced a breakdown in family life and the erosion of order-sustaining values?

How do we contend with, for example, the problem of low self-esteem among boys who are doing badly, failing and dropping out of the education system? Do teenage boys feel inadequate alongside more self-assured girls? Are the distractions too much for them to cope? Do their problems develop or become exacerbated because of trends such as those identified by the OECD/PISA study?

There is a lot of talk about the lack of male role models for boys. But, without even getting into the vexed question of whether female teachers, particularly those who are not mothers, really understand boys and the challenges they face in adolescence, surely the introduction of more focused teacher-training, counselling and mentorship programmes should be able to address this particular issue.

But what about moving towards a hybrid of the co-education system with the reintroduction of some single-sex schools? Perhaps the time has come for a comprehensive study of how boys and girls are faring in our education system, with a view to arresting and remedying existing problems.
More empirical evidence is needed.

It is not sufficient, however, to subscribe to the view that “boys will be boys.” To do nothing is akin to perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy that runs the risk of condemning them to ever lower expectations and performance standards.

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