Boys' Underachievement in Education: An Exploration in Selected Commonwealth Countries

Author(s) Jyotsna Jha, Fatimah Kelleher
Publisher Commonwealth Secretariat
Published 2006
Pages 133
Price £20.00
ISBN 9780850928457
Reviewed by Keith Savage
Stockport College
Review published 23 October 2008

Within two generations girls have, generally speaking, overtaken boys in educational achievement in much of the English-speaking world. This is partly attributable to consequences of the last World War, which transformed the expectations of women. For those of us living and working in Northern Europe this book is a salutary reminder that in many places – sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia and the Arab States -girls are likely to have less in the way of educational opportunities

The main focus of the book, however, is explained in the title. Jha and Kelleher are anxious to point out that their concern is not to compare boys’ educational experiences with those of girls’, but to identify reasons for boys’ indifference to, and alienation from, the worlds of schooling. They present four case studies – from Australia, Jamaica, Lesotho and Samoa – and examine under-participation and underperformance as two aspects of underachievement.

In Lesotho and Samoa the critical issues are the lack of school places and social expectations regarding the roles and occupations of boys and men. This could be partially addressed, therefore, by expanding the number of school places – though this may not be seen as an economic or political priority.

Other tasks – transforming gender roles and redefining masculinity – are more complex. The ways in which femininity and women’s self-confidence may have changed in the west over the last 40 years are almost an unintended consequence of other social and economic changes. To expect schools to change boys’ sense of purpose or self may be unrealistic.

Jha and Kelleher do, however, review the ways in which gender identity can be managed and challenged and find examples of successful practice. In a Jamaican high school where gang violence was a part of everyday school life, the school principal decided that a tough stand had to be taken which might seem to infringe some civil liberties but which also transformed the culture of the school. So mobile phones were banned; metals detectors were installed so that knives and other weapons could be found and seized.

In Lesotho many pupils live in remote and isolated mountain villages and regular school attendance is difficult. This has been partially addressed by the design and introduction of open and distance learning (ODL) programmes – though Jha and Kelleher are anxious to point out that ODL on its own cannot meet all the educational needs of pupils.

In Samoa gender roles and responsibilities are defined in complex ways, but traditionally are shaped by familial and work roles in the village. For boys to value schooling the curriculum needs to address explicitly matters to do with lifestyle, social duties, employment skills as well as numeracy, literacy and technological skills and knowledge.

Other policy issues – such as single sex schools, the impact of female teachers on boys’ achievements – are also considered in this short and interesting book. It is rich in material and the detailed contents pages aid the curious reader (there is no index). There is an extensive bibliography for those wishing to follow-up the case study material.