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The State of the World's Children 2004

What about boys?

© UNICEF/2003/Uzal

Girl-friendly schools translate into boy-friendly schools. Almost all reforms to help girls enrol and stay in school have similar effects on boys, advancing the aims of Education For All and the Millennium Development Goal of universal education.

Both boys and girls benefit from early childhood programmes. Flexible scheduling helps boys and girls who work inside or outside the family. Schools closer to children’s homes make it easier for all children to attend. Providing latrines and water to schools helps girls who are more likely affected by the lack of these facilities, but boys benefit too. And violence-free schools are good for everybody.

The development of child-friendly, gender-sensitive teaching methods that reach out to children’s individual needs improves the learning experience for all students. A USAID study in eight countries concluded that addressing girls’ education improves school quality and helps improve boys’ attendance. Gender-sensitive schools are good for everyone, especially in those countries where boys’ academic underachievement and disaffection with school has become increasingly problematic.

Boys left out

A recent UNICEF study confirms that in the majority of countries, girls’ attendance at school is far lower than boys. But in some countries, such as Colombia, Haiti, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mongolia, Suriname and the United Republic of Tanzania, boys are disproportionately absent from school.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, boys generally have higher repetition rates and lower academic achievement levels than girls, and in some countries, a higher rate of absenteeism. Crunch time often comes in early adolescence when their bodies and sense of themselves are changing, and they are forced to engage with the adult world and its expectations of males. This is becoming increasingly true in industrialized countries too.

Boys left behind

The problem of boys’ educational underachievement in industrialized countries remains a hidden problem. There had been an acceptance of girls doing better than boys in language and humanities and boys doing better in mathematics and science, fields that were traditionally closed to girls. In recent years, after school-based initiatives and changes in social expectations of women, girls’ participation and performance in science and math improved. The result is that in many countries girls are outperforming boys across the board.

Disaffected boys

Researchers have different areas of emphasis in addressing boys’ educational underachievement, but all agree that school-based remedies are not enough and, like that of girls’ underachievement in the developing world, it is inseparable from wider questions of gender and power.

The problem of boys’ educational underachievement is complex. Socialization is a factor – girls may be encouraged in the home to stay ‘on task’ and boys allowed more freedom. Social expectations translate into girls fitting school behavioural requirements; boys often do not. The gender balance of teachers also plays a major role. Whereas in many developing nations, there is a lack of female teachers, in industrialized countries, men are often missing in schools – particularly at the primary level.

Gender roles

Boys’ disaffection from education and its connection to their traditional socialization as males underscore the necessity of fathers’ involvement with their children from birth, participating in their care and development during early childhood and supporting their education.

Boys as strategic allies

Boys can be empowered and their social and educational development enhanced by helping to protect and promote girls’ rights. Boys have become valuable allies in addressing girls’ security and safety during the commute to and from school. This not only helps protect girls, but also strengthens boys’ social development when they confront violence and come to understand why it is unacceptable.

Poverty’s role

It is difficult to disentangle boys’ educational problems from their social class.  Often boys’ alienation from school and poor socio-economic circumstances go hand in hand. Poverty as well as gender roles influence boys’ academic underachievement.

Gender-sensitive schools are places where all children can flourish – the ultimate objective of Education For All.

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