Boys falling far behind girls in high school certificate and at university

The centre’s analysis found an ATAR-aged boy was 16.3 per cent less likely to obtain an HSC qualification than a girl in the same group, and 15 per cent less likely to complete at least one subject in 2020 than girls. “The effect of being male was greater than any of the other recognised disadvantages we looked at,” the analysis found.

The gap persists into university, the UAC analysis found, with boys enrolling at lower rates, less likely to pass all their subjects, and more likely to fail everything. The issue was across socio-economic quartiles.

Andrew Horsley with Dapto High School students. He is a mentor to the boys.

Andrew Horsley with Dapto High School students. He is a mentor to the boys.Credit:Janie Barrett

NSW Department of Education data also show boys are also more likely to skip school. Attendance among high school girls is more than 82 per cent, compared with less than 73 per cent for boys. Boys also represent 70 per cent of school suspensions.

Robin Nagy, the director of Academic Profiles, which examines data for the independent sector, said the gap could be partly due to NSW requiring English to count towards a fifth of a student’s HSC mark. “On average, girls would appear to benefit more from this requirement than boys, due to the archetype of girls performing better in English,” he said.

Female enrolments outnumber male ones in the harder English subjects, which scale to higher ATAR marks, and boys were over-represented in easier subjects.

Craig Petersen, the head of the Secondary Principals Council, which represents public school principals, said there had also been significant efforts over several decades to ensure girls were catered to in HSC examinations.

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“In response to the research that shows girls respond better to narrative questions, we started seeing scientific or mathematical problems voiced as a story,” he said.

This so-called “feminisation” of the HSC physics and chemistry syllabuses, in particular, was wound back in the most recent revision of the syllabuses, released in 2018, which had greater focus on mathematical applications and less on sociology-based content.

Petersen said boys also matured more slowly than girls; the prefrontal cortex, which helps people understand the consequences of their actions, does not finish developing for boys until 25. “That may be the area that says, ‘I want to have a good job, therefore I need to study hard’.”

The decision to raise the school-leaving age to 17 about a decade ago also meant boys who would once have left after year 10 for a trade were now staying on, Petersen said. “[Some] fall into this malaise, they don’t really want to be there, aren’t motivated,” he said.

Melissa Abu-Gazaleh is the managing director of the Top Blokes Foundation, which advocates addressing the health and wellbeing of young men to increase their engagement in school.

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She said many young men were still tied to the stereotype that they should not express vulnerability or seek help, and expressed their frustration in outbursts, which led to disciplinary action.

“This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where the male student then has lower aspirations to be better or achieve more,” she said. Giving male students a different message about seeking help and positive role models would help, she said.

Concerned that boys needed more help, Dapto High principal Andrew FitzSimons appointed a boys’ mentor, Andrew Horsley, who works with the Top Blokes Foundation and local service providers to ensure boys get the support they need.

“For me, it’s all about developing connections,” Horsley said. “With boys, sometimes you need to spend a bit of time and effort and energy to develop those connections, and then they’ll feel safer, if they’re struggling with something.”

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