Education increasingly becomes a boys’ problem at high cost

By Matthias Eck (UNESCO), Catherine Jere (University of East Anglia) and Justine Sass (UNESCO)

Despite tremendous progress in enrolment over the last 20 years, current estimates indicate that 259 million children and youth are out of school. Over half of these – approximately 132 million – are boys.

While, globally, girls remain less likely than boys to enter school in the first place, in many countries, boys are at greater risk of disengagement and dropout. Prolonged school closures and the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on learning loss and school dropout are likely to exacerbate existing gender disparities unless steps are taken to address the learning needs of all.

As the new UNESCO Global report on boys’ disengagement from education shows, boys are more likely than girls to repeat primary grades in 130 of 142 countries with data – indicating poorer progression through school – and less likely to proceed to upper secondary education in 73 countries, compared with 48 countries where girls’ show disadvantage.

Where previously boys’ disadvantage has been of greatest concern in high- or upper-middle-income contexts, including Latin America and the Caribbean, the Report’s analysis shows that new patterns are emerging. Several low- and lower-middle-income countries have seen a reversal in gender gaps, with boys being left behind at primary and lower secondary levels (see the Figure below). In the Gambia, for example, where 88 girls for every 100 boys were enrolled in primary education in 2000, 90 boys were enrolled for every 100 girls in 2019. In Nepal, the gender gap in upper secondary enrolment has also reversed dramatically. In 2000, there were just 62 girls enrolling for every 100 boys; by 2019 there were 89 boys enrolled for every 100 girls.

While there has been some progress in narrowing gender gaps to boys’ disadvantage in Latin American and Caribbean countries in lower secondary, they remain wide at upper secondary. In other countries, boys continue to be disadvantaged or the gender gap is widening. In 2019, just 76 boys for every 100 girls were enrolling at lower secondary level in Lesotho – a situation little changed since 2000.

In all regions except sub-Saharan Africa, young men are less likely to proceed to tertiary education. This disadvantage is particularly acute in North America and Western Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean regions, where only 81 young men for every 100 young women are enrolled in tertiary education.

Boys also lag behind girls in learning outcomes, particularly in fundamental skills such as reading. In 57 countries with data, primary-age boys fare worse than girls in mastering reading skills, and adolescent boys continue to fall behind at the secondary level. Gaps in reading skills start early. In 23 of 25 countries with data for proficiency in reading at Grades 2 and 3, the proportion of girls achieving minimum proficiency in reading is higher than the share of boys.

But why do boys face these challenges in education?

Poverty and the need to work are among the most important drivers of poor participation and school dropout. As a 16-year old boy from Lesotho interviewed for this Report said:

“Having no lunch at school discourages me to love school as I sometimes go to school with an empty stomach. Sometimes when I cannot afford to buy myself lunch or do not have a lunchbox it means that I am not eating that day.”

Another 15-year old boy from Lesotho noted: “Parents tell me to go and search for missing cattle, I sometimes return late and no longer have a chance to read.”

Gendered norms and expectations impact on boys’ motivation and desire to learn. Not only may boys feel pressure to work and earn money, but, in many contexts, school activities and certain subjects are considered at odds with expressions of masculinity, making education unpopular with boys.

Practices such as the streaming of classes and gender segregation contribute to boys’ low motivation, underachievement and disengagement from education. Harsh discipline, corporal punishment and other forms of school-related gender-based violence impact negatively on boys’ academic achievement and attainment. A secondary school-age boy from United Arab Emirates reported:

“I still remember the hitting. In Grade 5, I had a teacher who for some reason hated me and made me hate studying. As a result, I became stubborn and refused to study. I still remember the teacher once brought an electrical cable and had two boys hold me, and he hit my legs with the wire to the point where I couldn’t walk.”

Fear and experiences of violence lead to increased absenteeism and may contribute to dropout. Boys are more likely than girls to experience physical bullying and are often targeted because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Conflict and forced migration exacerbate challenges in accessing and completing education. Language barriers, mobility and discrimination contribute to educational exclusion.

The Report shows that there are only few programmes and initiatives addressing the phenomenon of boys’ disengagement from education. Comprehensive policies to address the issue are even more rare, and predominantly found in high-income countries. Few low- or middle-income countries have specific policies in place to improve boys’ education, even in countries with severe disparities at boys’ expense.

Yet, targeted action to improve educational opportunities for boys not only benefits boys’ learning, employment opportunities, income and well-being, but it is also highly beneficial for achieving wider economic, social and health outcomes, including gender equality. Educated men are more likely to treat women and men equally and support gender equality policies. Men and boys who have a secondary education are more likely to condemn gender-based violence.

Globally, improving educational opportunities for girls continues to be of paramount importance if gender equality in and through education is to be achieved. Not only do girls in many countries continue to face challenges in accessing quality education, but they also have to contend with inequality, discrimination and exploitation as they transition into the world of work and adult life.

However, it is also vital to ensure that a focus on achieving gender parity and equality does not ignore boys. Access to quality education for all is not a zero-sum game. Supporting boys does not mean that girls lose out, or vice-versa. On the contrary, equitable and inclusive education opportunities benefits both girls and boys, and can, ultimately, help transform society.

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2 comments

  1. The belief boys should be strong allows more aggressive treatment as early as one year of age, designed to create more layers of anger, fear, and tension, so they will be prepared to fight, defend, and be tough. This is coupled with “much less” kind, stable, (very little kind verbal interaction) and much less mental/emotional support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. It is this more aggressive, less supportive treatment, which creates the toughness or extra maintained layers of average stress: anger, fear, preparation for defense, anxiety, etc. These layers remain in the mind and take away real mental energy from academics, so those boys will have to work two or three times as hard to receive the same mental reward for mental work expended.
    This aggressive, less supportive treatment along with less verbal interaction creates more social/emotional distance/distrust of others – parents, teachers, peers, and others in society. It creates much less social vocabulary, knowledge of syntax and other communication we as girls are given on a continual basis from infancy. I feel this much less interaction also deprives boys, later men of many more areas of knowledge and skills girls are given through much more continual interaction and support/communication from everyone. Worse, this more aggressive and less supportive treatment leads to even more, sustained weights and values of more distance and even less social development over time while girls, later women who are given much kind, caring, verbal interaction/support continue are able to develop and use more and more social vocabulary and much more knowledge over time. From this treatment, I feel boys effectively understand about a third of the communication they have with parents, teachers, and other adults. The higher average stress creates more activity for stress relief (not genetics environmentally created).
    The total effect including less care and support creates much more failure and a feeling of hopelessness, especially with our false genetic models firmly in place. Also to make it even tougher for boys is the granting of love and honor (feelings of self-worth) only on condition of achievement, status, or image. This was designed to keep Male esteem and feelings of self-worth low to keep them striving and be willing to give their lives in war for small measures of love and honor from society. Males not achieving in school or other areas are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not given boys for fear of coddling and the false genetic models. Many boys (as you would expect) thus falling behind in school then turn their attention to sports and video games to gleam small measures of love and honor not received in the classroom. The belief boys should be strong and the false belief in genetics creates a blatant mental denial of the differential treatment, which is creating the lower academics, low esteem, and other problems many boys are facing today. So strong is the belief boys should be strong there is an almost emotional cannibalism allowed upon boys and men who appear weak in some way by society: parents, teachers, others, even from many girls and women, especially in the media.
    Note, this is not about showing feelings or openness from boys and men, it is about support, care, and respect for boys even when appearing weak in some way. Remember aggressive treatment is increased for any sign of weakness and so boys have much wariness for parents and teachers who feel it necessary and are more freely allowed to use more aggressiveness for any sign of weakness or vulnerability. This is condoned by many in society today.
    As for reading, we need high social vocabulary, much social/verbal interaction experience with sentence structure and “lower average stress” to perform and enjoy the abstract skills of reading: decoding, visualizing, organizing, reaching into their social vocabulary/knowledge of words to learn new words in print, and enjoy the process. Boys are deprived in these areas due to much less care, verbal interaction, and much more aggressive treatment. As for writing, we also need much social vocabulary to understand, plan, and to put words into print. We also need lower average stress to create more ease of writing. The higher average stress creates significant higher muscle tension, which then creates a much tighter grip and more pressure on their pen or pencil. This creates poor handwriting and early fatigue. This kills off their motivation to write, hence more two and three word sentences from boys with and less motivation.
    I feel the shows of masculinity and misbehavior are pretty much cop outs to both show separation from failure and also to generate small measures of love and honor from their peers. Their defensiveness from authority is really pretty straight forward, especially in lower socioeconomic areas where strength, power, and status hold very real currency in those areas. For those students it is not just misbehavior but a real tug of war or fight for minimum feelings of self-worth from a continual fight they feel outside the classroom as well as in.
    The suicide epidemic for boys and men is the result of Males being deprived sufficiently from essential feelings of self-worth and so being denied love and honor from others. The more aggressive, less supportive treatment boys are given from an early age is creating much more failure and hopelessness in school, preventing many boys, later men from competing in the information age thus losing the means to secure legally, income, status, and power to earn love and honor from society. This then creates many more instances of more aggressive, less respectful treatment, which slowly wears down their feelings of self-worth or desire to live right on to the point of suicide. I feel long before this point is reached, many many more boys and men are already escaping in various harmful ways from video games and sports to drug/alcohol abuse in an attempt to live despite the low feelings of self-worth they are feeling.
    There is a wrinkle to this. There are a “very few boys” given more stable, correct support from a few families which is enabling those few boys to succeed in school. This enables those boys to do well in school and receive love and honor from others, which they must continually keep doing to keep earning love and honor from society. This then becomes a never-ending drug for those boys which drives them to continually achieve in school. Those very few boys will be driven to continually achieve both in school and society with much more success due to the drug of achievement to earn love and honor. However the vast majority of those boys receiving very little support and much more aggressive treatment will not do well in school. Early on, they go into other areas to generate love and honor such as escaping to sports and video games, later to the military, (far right groups), or other areas just to generate ounces of love/honor from others. I feel the rapidly growing far right groups today are rooted in the hopelessness; anger; misled, inner feelings of inferiority to women; and the yes, now accumulating layers of abuse society and sadly many women are giving many boys and men today due to false feelings of superiority.
    Sadly, indulgence pays in the information age, while less supportive, more aggressive treatment hurts development in the information age. As girls we are treated much better and enjoy much more hope and care from society. Since we as girls are given by differential treatment, much more continual, positive – mental, social, emotional support, verbal interaction from an early age onward, this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls when compared with the boys. The much more verbal interaction also transfers and creates many small and large arrays of real knowledge and skills, which are “important for learning, communication, and working with knowledge and skills”. I feel this is creating a significant advantage for girls and women. We enjoy much more care and support from society, from infancy through adulthood and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things. This is even so for lower socioeconomic environments, where even here, girls, later women are able to perform very well in school and society due to much better continual support from everyone. We enjoy lower average stress for more ease of learning. We enjoy much more freedom of expression from much protection that makes us look more unstable at times. Of course we can also use that same tremendous freedom of expression to give verbal, silent abuse, and hollow kindness/patronization to our Male peers with impunity knowing we are protected. We enjoy much lower muscle tension for more ease and ability in handwriting and motivation to write. We enjoy much more positive, trust/communication from parents, teachers, peers, and more support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the socioeconomic bracket the much more amplified the differential treatment from infancy and more differentiated over time through adulthood. Now with girls and women taking over many areas of society, we are enjoying even more lavishing of love and honor from society, while the boys and men are now failing more so and are now given even more ridicule and abuse by society. Much more on this.

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