The boys problem

Elizabeth Solomon writes a weekly column for the Newsday

On Saturday last the headlines of the three daily newspapers all exclaimed that in academic achievements, “girls rule.” Unfortunately, even these achievements point to a serious underlying problem.

If a sound education policy is the foundation for building a viable nation, what is the strategy for dealing with the majority of students who do not achieve academic excellence and, as a particularly telling extension of that question, what is happening to our boys?

Most policy planners recognise the strong correlation between national underdevelopment, including high levels of criminal activity, and an unsatisfactory approach to education. However, investment in education often does not take immediate priority in national policy agendas, despite the increasing body of analysis that small improvements in the skills and attitudes of a nation’s labour force can have significant impacts.

In a recent report commissioned by the Commonwealth Secretariat, my colleagues and I argued that the issue of poor learning outcomes and high drop-out rates, particularly among boys, has been a major challenge for Caribbean educators and policymakers.

The phenomenon of boys’ underachievement cannot be resolved by intervening in the education sector alone. A country’s policy framework must take into account how different sectors contribute to strengthening formal and non-formal learning systems and ensure that each sector builds on and reinforces the efforts of other sectors. When boys drop out of school early or are persistent underachievers throughout the educational system, this can have a negative impact on social and economic development.

In the 1990s, a series of government and academic studies indicated that girls were outperforming boys in education. This gender gap subsequently became known among officials and academics as “the boys problem.” Some of the reasons proffered included: risky behaviours, delinquency, inadequate and punitive schools, poor teachers, broken families, poverty, hunger, the attractiveness of gang activity, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and cultural conflicts.

According to a World Bank study of Youth at Risk in Latin America and the Caribbean, feeling disconnected from school represents an “explanatory factor for all kinds of risky behaviour,” including repetition of school years, risky and early sexual behaviour, juvenile delinquency, violence, gang activity and substance abuse.

Recognising the interconnectedness of poor educational outcomes and a host of at-risk behaviours in young men, it is essential that policymakers look to develop an integrated and multi-agency response to the so-called “boys problem.” Integrated and multi-agency best practices related to education must operate alongside at-risk intervention strategies, including those related to crime prevention, for an effective approach to improving boys’ educational achievement.

Furthermore, governments have a moral and legal responsibility to address and mitigate educational barriers. Under Article 26 of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, education is identified as a basic human right.

When students suffer disadvantages related to their economic position in society, a disability, or their ethnic, racial or gender identity, it behoves governments to address those disadvantages. In short, equitable access to education is a human right and an investment in sustainable social and economic development.

The global Agenda 2030 with its 17 sustainable development goals operates under the rubric of “leaving no one behind.”

Building on this mandate, one presumes, Trinidad and Tobago’s Vision 2030 articulates a picture of itself in the future that is driven by a fundamentally reformed education system:

“Our country will be one in which young people feel confident in their own ideas to seek out and create their own opportunities, engendered by an education system that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation, and prepares learners to take advantage of opportunities in a rapidly changing global environment.”

If that is to be realised, there is an urgent need to recognise that our boys are being left behind and we must focus our attention on addressing the societal and policy gaps contributing to low levels of performance and high drop-out rates amongst male students.


"The boys problem"

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