Boys struggle with schoolwork while girls get on with the job

By Susan Edmunds

New Zealand girls want to be doctors, lawyers and politicians but their brothers are lacking ambition. And for the first time, an exclusive survey of National Standards data reveals the problem starts when they are at primary school. Susan Edmunds investigates

Although twins, Rose and Finn Williams tackle things quite differently. Photo / Martin Hunter
Although twins, Rose and Finn Williams tackle things quite differently. Photo / Martin Hunter

She's only 7, but already Rose Williams has a pretty clear view of what she'd like to do with her life. She would love to be a doctor, or perhaps a scientist like her mother. If she can fit in a bit of fashion design on the side so much the better.

For her twin brother, Finn, the future is a little more hazy. He would like to do something physical - perhaps fishing, something he loves doing with his dad.

In their matching blue Prebbleton School sweatshirts the two look like peas in a pod as they head off to Year 2 at the Christchurch primary. But since their first day, mum Carolyn Lister has noticed big differences in the way they deal with schoolwork, and how the system deals with them.

An OECD worldwide education report published this month shows that Rose isn't the only young girl with loftier ambitions than her brother. The survey revealed that 62 per cent of New Zealand teenage girls want to be lawmakers, senior officials and managers, or in the professions, but only 46.3 per cent of boys have the same high goals.

In Britain, differences such as these have made headlines. But the gender disparity is 50 per cent worse in New Zealand. Now, for the first time, data from a comprehensive Herald on Sunday survey of new National Standards achievement levels reveals the problem starts while boys are in primary school.

On average, boys are 14 percentage points behind girls in achieving the National Standard in writing. They are 8 percentage points behind girls in reading, and 1 point behind in mathematics.

Girls do better than boys at school from the minute they walk in the doors and that's why they are more ambitious and driven, says Massey University professor Michael Irwin.

At 6, when pupils are tested on their reading, about three-quarters of boys need help but fewer than a third of girls are put into reading recovery.

Irwin says not enough is done to ease the transition from early childhood education to the classroom. At kindergarten boys are allowed to charge around. At primary school they're expected to spend a lot of time sitting quietly.

THE CULTURE shock for boys is reflected in National Standards results, which show big gaps in achievement and in boys' lack of ambition. Part of the problem is that we don't expect enough of our boys, Irwin says. "We've got to give boys a kick up the butt.

Some boys are performing very well, but not enough of them." The mid-teen years are crucial for parents and teachers to put boys on track to a goal.

Those aged 14 and 15 are the most likely to get into trouble if they don't know where they are going. Irwin says teachers should be sitting down with students when they are about 12 to discuss what subjects they need to take.

"We leave it too late. They find they can't do something because they haven't made the right choices earlier. We need to start earlier on what are the right paths to take."

Boys tell him they want to succeed but don't know where or how. "They all say 'I don't want to be a bum, I want to get a job', even if they then say it's to get a car. They want to work but they haven't thought how."

St Leo's Catholic School in the million-dollar suburb of Devonport is an anomaly. There, the boys are matching the girls in reading (90 per cent achieved the National Standard last year) and are just a tad behind in maths (89 per cent of boys made the grade, just three points behind the 92 per cent of girls who made it).

Vice-principal Mary-Anne Frazer-Hurst says her students' success is down to the decile 10 school's small class sizes. Having only 106 students helps, as classes can be limited to no more than 25.

There is also a strong focus on professional development for teachers and although boys are generally harder to engage, she feels teachers are doing well in capturing their attention.

Dad Terry Harrison believes it's down to the school's outstanding teachers. Harrison's son Morgan is the last of three siblings to go through the school and is now in Year 5. His dad likes the school because its results are transparent.

He says it's reassuring to know that no one is falling through the gaps.

Business NZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly says it's not boys like Morgan and his classmates who are most likely to suffer. The biggest problem is for those who aren't academically inclined. They're zoning out in class and sometimes can't see the point of it.

O'Reilly says the Government and Business NZ have been working on developing pathways to show kids what they need to do to end up in industries they've set their sights on. O'Reilly says that means kids who might be tempted to drop a subject they're finding hard, perhaps maths, might stick at it when they discover it's critical to becoming an engineer.

"If we make teaching more relevant they are more likely to get informed and be ambitious."

But are we simplifying things a bit too much by reducing it to a boy-versus-girl thing?

Some teachers think it's much more about the background and family of each student than about gender. Paul Daley, a vice-president of the Secondary Principals Association, says socio-economic backgrounds are the biggest driver of what kids aspire to be.

He says it's become a bit fashionable to say the system is biased towards girls. "I've spent 40 years in the co-ed environment and I don't believe it's biased one way or the other."

EDUCATION MINISTER Hekia Parata declined an interview, instead diverting inquiries to her officials at the Ministry of Education.

Deputy secretary for student achievement Rowena Phair denies New Zealand's problem is anything out of the ordinary. She argues that what we're seeing is happening worldwide.

The Ministry has developed five vocational pathways to show students which NCEA standards employers would value.

"Boys do better when given opportunities for activity-based learning linked to the real world. They respond to education programmes with higher levels of physical activity, do well with ICT and e-learning, and do better when given quality peer support, mentoring and male role-modelling.

"Family and whanau are key influencers for young people's learning and career decisions. Consequently they have an important role to play in raising the aspirations of boys."

Labour's education spokeswoman Nanaia Mahuta says she didn't grow up wanting to be a politician. When she was 7 she wanted to travel the world. At 8 she wanted to be a writer, at 11 a hairdresser, and at 12 a teacher.

"I changed my mind. I can't say that I had always wanted to be a politician. It just happened that way and I had support and encouragement to pursue my interests - whatever they were."

She said schools needed to make sure their curriculums were relevant to boys. "We need all young people to aspire and achieve in education regardless of gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background."

So are the boys' low aspirations and poor achievement a national problem? Academia is one of the professions where women are in a majority in New Zealand. Professor Maureen Baker, of the University of Auckland's sociology department, says girls might have high aspirations as teenagers but at about 18 reality hits.

They find it's harder to juggle family and relationships with top-level careers and, almost always, it's the careers that suffer.

"I don't think it's a problem at school level because boys end up getting better pay and jobs anyway. Why isn't it a problem that women aren't doing as well in the labour market?"

That's borne out by data from Statistics New Zealand that shows girls might say they want to be legislators, administrators and managers but there are 30,000 more men in such roles. And almost four times as many men as women earn more than $100,000 a year. If there is a problem for boys, says Baker, it's related to New Zealand's culture of masculinity.

"We tell them sport is the most important thing in life, not being intellectual. It's no wonder girls say they like reading more and end up doing better at tasks given to them at school."

The OECD reports says that by the time they graduate with degrees in the sciences, New Zealand women outstrip their male counterparts by more than 20 percentage points.

Irwin concedes that men still dominate the professions at the moment, but says that's likely to change as the last of the baby-boomers retire and senior appointments are increasingly made on qualification and merit.

THE WILLIAMS twins' mother, Carolyn Lister, is aware of the differences between her two. Rose started reading much earlier than Finn, and while she is still happy to sit with a book, Finn would much rather be running around.

She says teachers make a difference - a particularly good one captured Finn's interest last year by focusing specifically on things that would interest the boys in the class.

But for now, Lister is separating Rose and Finn for every reading homework assignment they get. It was a lesson learned quickly after the twins started school.

If they read together, Rose tends to chip in and give all the answers before her brother has had a chance.

"We've always had to be quite careful to stop her reading things for him."

Girls lead career plot

Rory Henderson looks warily over his shoulder at his teacher as he slides into a seat in the corner of Pompallier Catholic College's graphics room. "Are we in trouble?"

His friends giggle as we pull them around a table to join a discussion about this month's OECD report, showing New Zealand girls have much loftier ambitions than their male counterparts and are achieving far better academically.

You get the feeling that Sarah Atkinson might want to roll her eyes at the boys around her. They are talking about careers in animation, engineering and possibly teaching, but Atkinson hasn't wavered from what she wants to do.

Her father is a doctor and she wants to follow in his footsteps. She's taking NCEA science a year early and is itching to get on with it.

Whangarei's Pompallier College Year 10 students don't think the OECD findings are too much off the mark. Atkinson and her friends, Charlotte Woolston and Jessie Edgecombe, ponder the questions. The boys largely leave the girls to do the talking. They fidget with pent-up exuberance that could only come from 15-year-old boys.

Josh Crawford says he'd like to go to university but he's not sure what for yet. "It's just having a qualification to get a better job, not going on the minimum wage."

Sue Maich-Hall, an English and social studies teacher, has to work out what books and movies to set her students to study, to capture the attention of boys as well as girls.

But hearing about the OECD findings, the Year 10 dean isn't convinced it's as simple as boys versus girls.

"I think it's more related to their academic level as opposed to their gender."

Yet the school's NCEA results confirm that boys' achievement is dropping. Last year, at level two, girls outperformed boys by 79.3 per cent to 75.8 per cent. And at level three the difference was marked: 76.3 per cent of girls met the standard compared with 51.7 per cent of boys.

- Herald on Sunday

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