Ten thousand children wrote the National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA) mock exams in Guyana last week and the question was what happened to the other 4000 or so who failed to participate. But there should be another, even more fundamental question that should have been raised: whither our boys?
Over the last two decades, the Common Entrance/NGSA cohort were distributed almost evenly between boys and girls. Extrapolating from the results over that period, one can predict that at least 70 per cent of the top performers at the scheduled sitting will be girls. This discrepancy in educational performance continues throughout the educational system, not only in Guyana, but across the Caribbean. The phenomenon is extending into other spheres of social life, but we will focus on education in this editorial.
These results are directly opposite of those obtained in surveys at the time of independence in the sixties. Females then, of course, were not expected to ‘compete’ with males across the educational spectrum and in fact, their ‘place’ was expected to be ‘in the home’. Female enrolment beyond the primary levels was minuscule. However, as the drive for gender equality kicked off in the same decade, female enrolment did not just inch upwards but their performance began to gradually surpass males at all levels.
By 1990, the drop-off in male performance in the educational sector, both relatively and absolutely, led to a slew of studies in the Region to explain and hopefully rectify the growing imbalance. It was perhaps a sign of the times that the lag in female performance in preceding decades never evoked the same universal concerns. However, even though the study of the phenomenon had become a veritable cottage industry, none of the subsequent interventions – replacing “tests” by “assessments”, single-sex schools, etc, seems to have made a dent in stemming the tide, much less reversing it.
However, the consensus of the studies, that the falling male performance in schools is a consequence of the broader pattern of their socialisation as ‘males’ should have sensitised policymakers to the need for a wider, more holistic approach. It is sometimes forgotten that prior to independence, the percentage of males attending high school, while higher than girls, was very small in absolute terms. The introduction of compulsory and universal enrolment brought in a huge number of boys who were not socialised into the ‘sit and listen’ ethos of the school system.
Girls, on the other hand, with that attitude already normalised over the centuries, fitted in quite well and the results have been commensurate. Secondly, with the growth of feminist thinking, it became acceptable for girls to enter and compete in fields that were traditionally ‘male’ while there was no comparable push for boys to enter the traditional ‘feminine’ ones. This was especially noticeable in the teaching profession itself, which is now overwhelmingly dominated by females.
This lack of male role models at this crucial stage of development simply added to the pressures on boys to ‘measure’ up. One growing reaction has been their assumption of a hyper-masculine ‘pose’ that revels in under-performing in ‘girly’ activities such as ‘school work’. Another has been the aggression by boys against female teachers in an evident rebellion to being labelled as ‘failures’. All of these reactions are fed and encouraged by the dominant Dancehall lyrics that extol machismo through misogynic put-downs of females.
As far as interventions are concerned, as we have intimated, there will be no silver bullets to the problem of boys under-performing in schools. But in terms of pedagogy, it must be accepted that boys and girls learn in different ways. This is not a sexist statement, but one guided by modern research. Boys need to be much more physically involved in the learning process and as such, programmes must be designed to cater for these differential aptitudes.
On the other hand, we must not throw out the baby with the bath water and in any way, shape or form, hold back girls. In fact, they must be encouraged to enter fields such as science and mathematics where they still are a minority.