Mark Malabver: Save our boys
The debate concerning the building of more elite boys' schools seems to have garnered the attention of noted individuals within the Jamaican education system. On one hand, there are those who seem to be suggesting the building of more elite boys' schools might be the silver bullet in rescuing our male students from the scourge of underachievement and marginalisation. Yet, there are those who seem to be pouring cold water on the suggestion.
First, let's make it clear that the issue of the underperformance of our boys in the Jamaican education system, if left unchecked, will lead to serious sociological problems in the near future, some of which we are already experiencing. It has implications for social justice, crime and violence, the economy, equity, and even the distribution of social benefits.
It is a known fact that of both genders, boys account for the highest level of high-school dropout, which tend to occur mainly at grade nine. The vast majority of male dropouts fall at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.
The ratio of female to male students at our tertiary institutions is alarming. The debate about building more elite schools for boys, therefore, cannot take place without examining the issue within its socio-economic context, and its impact on the society as a whole.
There are several factors that account for the underachievement of our boys in our Jamaican education system. Research has shown, for example, that, on average, boys attend school regularly at the primary level far less than girls. The factors that account for the poor attendance of boys range from illness to lack of lunch money. This means that the high rate of absence of our boys, relative to girls, is mainly because of home-related factors. Boys, therefore, had less contact time in school. This will invariably affect their achievement levels in comparison to their female counterparts.
Research has also shown there is a significant difference between the genders on time spent doing school-related activities versus non-school activities. Specifically, boys spend significantly less time doing homework and reading on weekends than girls. In addition to this, boys spend far more time socialising and watching television than girls do.
Generally, only a relatively small percentage of students in Jamaica tend to be involved in work/economic activities. However, of note, is the fact that a significantly higher percentage of boys are more involved in part-time work and economic activity in order to help to support the family. The involvement of boys in economic activity, therefore, negatively affects their schooling and, by extension, their performance levels in comparison to girls.
It has long been established that boys, on average, tend to learn differently from their female counterparts. However, it is my considered opinion that much more research needs to be done in this area in order to better shape pedagogy and the policies of the Ministry of Education. In the meantime, I do share the view that we ought to seriously consider gender-separated classes for many subjects.
In order for this to be successful, school leadership must be strategic in how they deploy the human resources available to them. There must first be capacity-strengthening in the area of gender-specific curriculum delivery. Much effort and time must be spent on planning lessons, selecting teaching material, and creating the right type of learning atmosphere for our boys to learn.
Research findings also identify that there is a very significant difference in how teachers relate to male and female students. This may also include disciplinary procedure and other regulations. The research found that boys are more likely to be exposed to negative evaluations and discourse than girls, thereby eroding self-esteem and their motivation to learn.
Given the negative psychological effect that streaming has on students, especially males, I believe the ministry should phase out that policy. Boys, on average, account for about 70 per cent of those students who are placed in the lower streams. This helps to further reinforce their status in the school as underachievers.
Dr Herbert Gayle's proposal of building more elite boys' schools has brought the debate on boys' underperformance into sharp focus. Let's not kill the messenger. However, if we misdiagnose the problem, we might apply the wrong medicine.
The Ministry of Education should establish a task force to examine the underachievement of schoolboys.
- Mark Malabver is head of the Social Science Department at Charlie Smith High School, and chairman of the Inner-city Teachers Coalition. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.