Why are boys struggling
so badly and what can
we do about it?
Published in The West Australian, Friday 8 September 2023
Written by: Dean Dell'Oro, Headmaster of Hale School
News reports have been piling up in recent years on the downward trend in male achievement and outcomes. Piece this information together and it becomes clear that boys and men are struggling - first at school, then in employment, with relationships and with their mental health.
On the front page last month, we read again about boys falling behind at school ('Oh boy! Girls are clear winners in NAPLAN battles of the sexes'). It reported that, "Nearly twice as many boys as girls need extra support with reading, writing and other language skills in WA classrooms" according to the latest NAPLAN results.
In the same edition, there was an article about teen suicide, stating: "In WA alone, we lost one person each day to suicide in 2021, with males disproportionately represented in the figures;' These reports are deeply troubling. Sadly, they are also just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the challenges facing boys.
Girls consistently outperform boys in reading across all OECD countries, which can lead to "serious difficulties in their further education, in the labour market and in everyday life" (PISA 2018 Results).
More boys (12 per cent) than girls (8 per cent) have a diagnosed disability, mainly intellectual (learning), psychosocial (mental health), or sensory and speech ('People with disability in Australia 2022').
Fewer male students (76 per cent) graduate high school than female students (85 per cent) (2022 Census, Australian Bureau of Statistics) and female students make up 60 per cent of higher education enrolments (Australian Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2021).
Mental health disorders and injuries are the leading cause of ill health or death in men aged 15 to 44, followed by alcohol use disorders ('Australian Burden of Disease Study 2022'), 43 per cent of Australian males have experienced a mental health problem in their lifetime ('National Study of Mental Health and
On almost every measure, boys are falling further and further behind, getting lost and failing to fulfil their potential.
Evidence also indicates that our education system better suits girls, who are typically developmentally more advanced than boys, particularly in language and social skills.
Compounding the challenges is the fact that boys are more impulsive and generally not as compliant. As spatial learners, boys often find it much harder to sit still and listen for extended periods, think laterally (rather than literally) and follow instructions.
The gap often starts young and then widens to a point where many boys find it hard to catch up, let alone get ahead. They may shy away from activities where girls are more naturally adept, such as reading, writing, drama, public speaking and debating - afraid they will be compared and humiliated.
As boys grow into men, too often they don't know what their place is in the world. They are told not to be too masculine, too physical, too loud ... They may not be the main breadwinner in the family but carry an expectation that they should be. They feel they fall short of society's contemporary expectations of them. Some can't see what their role actually is.
So, how can we help our boys? There is clearly no simple answer, but I believe the seeds are planted young and, so, parenting and teaching are a good place to start.
We need to recognise that boys and girls learn differently and cater for those differences.
For example, some boys may not be developmentally ready to start kindy when they are three or four years old and may be better waiting until Pre-Primary.
Within the classroom, teaching needs to be differentiated. For boys, that often means a mix of direct and experiential, multi-sensory learning.
Boys need to move regularly, both in and outside the classroom. They need sport. They need to be inspired to read and for it to be sustained throughout adolescence.
We need to give boys the opportunities and encouragement to do the things they know girls are naturally good at, without fear of failure.
They also need opportunities to deep dive into areas they're interested in or are passionate about, and for their interests to be leveraged in areas they find challenging.
They need to be in nature, to have outdoor education, camps and excursions. Boys so often want real-world experience.
They need to feel understood and have positive relationships with adults, especially parents and teachers, so they feel confident to ask questions and share challenges.
They need to feel - and be shown it is okay to feel - big emotions and learn how to deal with them positively and effectively.
They need to be involved in caring for others, for younger family members or students in buddy programs or have structured service learning activities. Boys need to know they have an important role to play in providing care and empathy.
They need positive role models who can show them what a good man looks like.
Most of all, they need to know that being a boy isn't bad - it is great!