That boys do not achieve as well academically as girls at schools has been an ongoing matter for discussion both in New Zealand and overseas. In New Zealand, the attention to boys' education has arisen in light of the relative gap between the achievement of boys and girls. In recent years, several indicators including international studies, NCEA data and the shool leaving qualifications of boys and girls recognise this difference.

There has been considerable speculation about the origins of the differences in the achievement of boys and girls. Much of the research work undertaken on gender in education has tended to provide information for academic and/or policy audiences, with few studies specifically designed to help schools address issues associated with boys' achievement. Moreover, while in recent years evidence has been presented to New Zealand schools about improving teaching generally, educational research on boys has not provided definitive advice to schools about how they can improve their teaching practice to further support the achievement of boys.

This study aims to contribute to the educational debate on boys' achievement by identifying and reporting on practices that have supported boys' learning in some New Zealand secondary schools. It uses case studies to discuss examples of successful educational strategies for boys. These are not simply aimed at improving NCEA results, but are used to support boys in different learning contexts and curriculum areas throughout the stages of their secondary schooling.

Boys' achievement and participation

The central issue for boys' education, both in New Zealand, as well as many other developed countries, has been the achievement gap between boys and girls. At the end of 2007 the Ministry of Education produced a report, Boys' Achievement - A Synthesis of the Data, which states that there are some 'clear and consistent issues' related to the achievement of boys. Drawing on a wide range of educational achievement and participation data, this report found that boys are over-represented in:

  • early problems in reading;
  • disengagement with school;
  • lower achievement in reading and writing; and
  • lower qualification attainment. 1

The Ministry's report also identified important differences in the achievement patterns of boys and girls. For example, it found that girls performed better than boys in all forms of literacy, although differences in reading tended to decrease during secondary schooling and differences in writing increase. No significant differences were found between boys and girls in mathematics and science achievement.

The report from the Ministry shows that, since the introduction of NCEA, there had been a consistent gap in the qualifications achieved by boys and girls. Approximately 10 percent more girls achieve Level 1 and Level 2 tha boys, with 13 percent more girls achieving Level 3.

From 1993 to 2006 the number of girls achieving University Entrance increased slightly over the number of boys. In 1993 27 percent of girls left school with University Entrance compared to 23 percent of boys. By 2006 41 percent of girls gained University Entrance compared to 31 percent of boys.

Despite the differences that exist between boys and girls at University Entrance and Levels 1, 2 and 3 of NCEA, boys are awarded a similar number of scholarship to girls. 2 For Example, in 2006 1502 males and 1426 females won scholarships. Fifty-eight percent of the scholarships awarded to male students were in mathematics and science, while female students were notably more successful in English and the Arts.

Ministry of Education data also show that ethnicity differences were more marked than gender differences. One way to represent this information is to identify how different age groups have performed in secondary school education. For example, of the students who failed to achieve a qualification at school, Māori males formed the highest percentage, followed by Māori females, Pacific males, and then Pacific females through to Asian females who had the lowest percentage of non-qualification. (see graph below).

Graph 1: Percentage of school leavers with little or no formal attainment by gender and ethnic group, 2006

Research on boys' education

Which boys are not succeeding?

International research on the achievement gap between boys and girls most often points to issues of literacy, especially writing, as being a key area of difference between boys' and girls' achievement.3 While some research indicates that girls are also slightly ahead in arts education, the differences between boys and girls in mathematics and science are not particularly marked.

Despite the relatively high numbers of boys who underachieve research shows that just as many boys perform well in education as girls. Many researchers emphasis that care is needed in discussing which groups of boys are not succeeding at school, and that the achievement differences between boys and girls are not as an educational problem for all boys.

International and New Zealand research evidence also draws attention to the effect of background on the performance of boys. For example, internationally, there is some evidence to suggest that there are larger gaps for boys from lower socio-economic backgrounds. There is also evidence that there is a larger gap in achievement between schools in rural settings and those in urban areas. In New Zealand the performance of Māori and Pacific boys (and girls) is a cause of concern.

It should be pointed out however, that although boys from lower socio-economic background, and Māori and Pacific boys, are among the lowest performing groups of students in New Zealand, NCEA data shows that the gap between the achievement of boys and girls actually increased with school decile. For example, in 2007 the results for Year 11 students doing NCEA Level 1 showed that there was a 6.6 percent gap between boys and girls in low decile schools, an 8.4 percent gap in mid decile schools and a 13.3 percent gap in high decile schools (see also Appendix 1 attached to this report).

More research is needed to understand these trends and why certain groups of boys, in various educational contexts, do not achieve as well as girls.

Factors in boys' underachievement

A wide range of factors may influence the relative underachievement of boys. These include behavioural, biological, cultural, pedagogical and environmental factors. The complexity of the way these factors interact, and how they specifically relate to boys' education have made it difficult for researchers to provide definitive evidence on the causes of boys' underachievement and therefore develop advise for teachers.

The dominant research perspective is that connected to issued of male identity formation - specifically how boys see themselves as learners. Much of the research suggests that issues of gender identity are the most significant area to understand and address in boys' education issues. In this approach, consideration is given to how boys perceive themselves as learners in contemporary classrooms and how this translates into educational achievement.

It also claimed in some research that aspects of education are 'feminised' and inherently biased towards the achievement of girls. In other research, issues of how boys approach the literacy areas of reading, writing and speaking form a significant part of the discussion about boys' learning.

Responding to the educational needs of boys

The diverse range of factors influencing boys' underachievement has resulted in a range of different perspectives and approaches on the educational needs of boys and the ways to respond. Many are based on anecdotal or observational data and, while they may be effective in s particular setting, the collection of evidence has not yet reached the point where teachers can be confident about what will work in their class. These approaches include:

  • the use of goals and targets;
  • practical, hands-on activities;
  • giving boys responsibility for their learning and allowing them to make choices;
  • providing high levels of structure and teacher-led activities;
  • positive reinforcement;
  • using competition in the classroom;
  • incorporating physical activity into learning;
  • mentoring and peer support programmes;
  • the use of outdoor education programmes;
  • developing relevant learning activities and contexts;
  • importing popular culture texts into classroom reading;
  • daily silent reading times
  • using computers and other electronic media to support writing
  • developing critical literacy approaches, including those that help boys understand how masculinity is created through texts; and
  • making school fun for boys and avoiding repetitive learning.

As can be seen, the above list includes aspects that are somewhat contradictory. These education strategies for boys should not be divorced from types of teaching and learning activities that have a more established evidence base regarding their effectiveness for both boys and girls, (the approach to teaching and learning in the Ministry of Education's Quality Teaching for Diverse Students and Professor John Hattie's research on the Influences on Student Learning).

ERO's previous work on boys' education

In 1999 ERO published its report: The Achievement of Boys. This noted that girls outperformed boys against most measures of school achievement. For instance, it provided evidence, for instance that the school certificate grade distribution, and the distribution of B grades or better, (moderately) favoured girls.

School Certificate grade distribution by gender

Grade A B C D E
Girls 8.9% 24.6% 31.3% 26.1% 9.2%
Boys 7.1% 20.6% 31.5% 29.1% 11.7%

Percentage of School Certificate results at B or better by ethnicity

Ethnicity European Māori Pacific Islands Other
Girls 38.0% 14.5% 11.2% 38.8%
Boys 30.8% 10.0% 11.0% 33.6%

This report noted that there was evidence that boys and girls learn and respond in different ways, and achieve best with different styles. The report suggested that teachers needed to be knowledgeable about differences in the preferred learning styles and behaviour of boys and girls, and to be able to adopt a range of teaching strategies to help accommodate the differences. This could have included grouping boys and girls differently for different activities.

The report also noted that schools needed to collect and examine achievement information to assess where boys were not achieving as well as they could and use this information to review their policies and programmes to ensure that the strengths of boys were sufficiently channelled and developed.

An analysis of ERO findings in a sample of 60 secondary schools found that girls' schools or coeducational schools performed better than boys' schools against a wide range of indicators, including curriculum delivery and the quality of the school's physical and emotional environment.

ERO's findings indicated that in 1999 many boys-only schools provided an education with a strong emphasis on tradition, examination results and sporting success. This type of education, while successful for some, did not necessarily meet the needs of all students, In contrast, girls-only schools and coeducational schools tended to adopt a wider range of teaching styles that catered more successfully for individual differences.

This report pointed out that, despite the findings about boys' schools, most boys in New Zealand today attend coeducational schools. An analysis of School Certificate examination results carried out for this study showed that the gap between boys' and girls' achievement in coeducational schools was larger in some types of schools than others. For example the gap in small schools and rural schools was considerably larger than the average.