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Boys to fine men: school and community partnerships. Speech to the 3rd biennial Teaching Boys Conference, Newcastle City Hall, NSW.

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Boys to Fine Men Conference


Saturday March 29, 2003

Firstly, let me acknowledge the traditional custodians on this land, the Awabakal people, on whose land we meet today.

I am very pleased to be here in my home city at the National Boys to Fine Men Conference, representing the Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson, Minister for Education, Science and Training. The Minister has taken a particular interest in this issue having established and initially chaired the Federal Parliament’s Education of Boys inquiry. Brendan is the father of two boys.

I mentioned to your conference organisers that you now have a unique conjunction in time between your interests and the Minister’s interests. Take advantage of this conjunction - it may not occur again for a very long time.

I come from a very long line of families with boys. My father and his three brothers all became school principals. In his retirement, my father wrote a book about their life growing up on a farm with his brothers called “Four Bad Boys”. They all turned out to be fine men, in the end.

I was the youngest of three boys - a very bad place to be on the food chain - how I survived childhood has always been a mystery to me. My eldest brother started his engineering training early at age 10, by building a series of tree houses and when he ran out of backyard trees - under ground cubby houses. He would, with the aid of sibling slave labour, (we dug - he supervised) - dig pits in our extensive backyard. There were about 3 metres deep and 2-3 metres square.

Having water proofed a series of these caverns with tar paper - flammable of course - Jeff would then set about joining them with short tunnels. Being the youngest boy, I would be the mole - to test if the tunnel between the caverns was wide enough. It usually wasn’t.

Seared on my memory is being stuck in one of these tunnels - completely surrounded by earth- one brother pushing me from one end and the other brother pulling me from the other end. It is a miracle I stand here before you today - alive!

Through the different ages of my life, I have been inturn a boy, a student, a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a legislator and a policy maker. I am now a father with two sons and a grandfather of one, almost two grandsons.


The journey from boyhood to manhood is an adventure tempered by many

different influences and adversities - it is a difficult journey. It was for me, it has been for my sons and I am sure it will be for my grandsons. In many ways the journey is becoming more difficult.

Certainly, the ‘big issues’ that we have heard about at this conference - literacy, engagement, resilience and purpose, and welfare and behaviour, are very real life issues. There is clear evidence that boys are underachieving across a range of education and social indicators - both inside and outside the classroom.

Boys continue to underachieve in key educational areas - most notably literacy. While girls’ performance in literacy results has remained relatively stable over the past 25 years, boys’ results have generally fallen at a significant level. Girls are achieving higher average marks in the majority of subjects at Year 12, and the gap between boys’ and girls’ total marks has widened markedly.

The Year 12 school retention rate in 2002 was just 70% for males, compared with 81% for females. Males are over-represented among students experiencing disciplinary problems and school exclusion. Teenage boys are more likely than teenage girls to be unemployed, be involved in a car crash, commit suicide or have problems with the law.

But I saw how a goods school education focussed on boys can positively influence a boy with the experience of my youngest son. Gifted in mathematics (he 1st beat me at chess at age eight) he topped maths in primary school, but languished in junior secondary, doing just enough to get by.

For his senior high school education we sent him to St Josephs College, Hunters Hills - a boarding school, a cloistered boys learning community. He thrived - entering the bottom level 3 unit maths class at the start of year 11 and then taking out the St Joseph’s mathamatics medal at the end of Year 12. He is now at the end of a double engineering degree.

This example shows what is possible and an increasing number of parents make incredible financial sacrifices to achieve similar ends. But it is obviously not a solution for the majority of boys.

This was not lost on the government’s House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training. A report on this issue was presented to Parliament in October last year. Its findings into the education of boys is good reading and I commend it to you - the report was entitled - Boys: Getting it right.

In short, the Committee found that there is justification for many concerns expressed about boys’ education. While it is important to acknowledge these concerns and ‘big issues’ around boys and boys’ education, it is equally important to celebrate and share many of the successes we are achieving.


In that regard, this conference has been a showcase for the excellent and

innovative work being carried out and results being achieved for boys. The Boys: Getting it right report, noted that many schools and individual teachers are already achieving excellent outcomes for both girls and boys. We must continue to ensure that the issue of boys’ education is not just about establishing a framework of competition between the genders. We should ensure there is continuing support for the many important advances that have been made over the past few decades in participation and achievement of girls.

Several years ago an esteemed American educator named John Fischer said -“The essence of our effort is to see that every child has a chance must be to assure each an equal opportunity, not to become equal, but to become different—to realize whatever unique potential of body, mind and spirit he or she possesses.”

I think his words capture the essence of what we are seeking to achieve.

The Commonwealth recognises issues surrounding the education of boys have been found to be complex, and simple solutions may not be the best solutions. Apart of the Boys: Getting it right report recommended that the national strategy for “gender equity” be rewritten because it was based on a futile approach - trying to change boys so they become more like girls. An antiquated approach I think you would agree.

In the 70s when some argued that boys and girls should be treated in a similar way and gender differences minimized, a mother with a pre-school son and daughter - gave her son a doll for Christmas and her daughter a toy truck. After an hour passed the little girl had made a bed in the back of the truck and the boy took the talking doll apart to see how the sound system worked.

Gender is just one of a range of factors that can affect the way students learn and their educational outcomes. This does not mean, however, that we must not take up the challenge of supporting boys and helping to address the issues that impact on their lives.

When I started teaching in the late 1960’s at Sydney Boys High School it seemed that such schools were to become antiquarian curiosities. At that time it seemed that the comprehensive vs single gender school debate had been settled. Under the Whyndam reforms to NSW secondary education that had been just introduced in NSW, all high schools were to become a far as possible comprehensive, Year 7-12, “one size fits all” schools.

With hindsight I now realize that this reform was driven more by social ideology that having any real basis in sound education practice - it overturned the wisdom of the ages. Currently the research on its outcomes for boys and


girls seemed to indicate that broadly girls do better in a comprehensive

environment and boys do better in a single gender environment. This might in part account for some of the skewing of outcomes towards girls in recent times. I don’t believe we will ever see a large scale dismantling of comprehensive schools.

However, some schools have tried for the best of both worlds by conducting some single gender classes in key learning areas in a comprehensive environment. To the extent that these educational practices are successful, they should be encouraged.

So - what is the Commonwealth Government doing to help rebalance the education of boys and girls?

Dr Nelson, has begun by allocating $3.5 million towards the Boys Education Lighthouse Schools Programme - designed to identify and showcase successful practices in the education of boys. The program has been set-up in stages.

Under the first stage of this programme, all Australian primary and secondary schools have been invited to apply for grants of up to $5,000 to document and disseminate successful practices in the education of boys. The findings will be disseminated nation-wide later in the year and provide a rich source of information to schools about successful practices in educating boys.

The information collected during these projects will be used to guide the development of Stage Two, in 2004, during which up to 30 ‘cluster’ school zones will be established across Australia to support best practice in boys’ education. One school within each cluster will act as a ‘beacon’ to showcase best practice in boys’ education. These lighthouse schools will receive funding of up to $60,000 and support the professional development of teachers in the entire cluster.

As you have seen and heard in the past few days, there are many examples of innovative school-based initiatives that are succeeding in supporting the educational needs of boys and improving their outcomes. The Boys Lighthouse Programme aims to capture and showcase projects like these, and to disseminate information and strategies to teachers.

In addition to this major initiative, which is of direct assistance to boys and to schools, the Commonwealth has committed up to $500,000 for research into significant areas of education relevant to boys, including pedagogy and curriculum. These projects build on a solid base of research the Government has undertaken in recent years investigating educational issues relevant to boys.

The Commonwealth has also instigated a review of the existing gender equity policy document, Gender Equity: A Framework for Australian Schools, so that it reflects the current issues relating to the impact of gender on learning.


There has been a lot of discussion at this conference about the importance of

positive male role models for our young people. The House of Representatives Inquiry into the education of boys unanimously agreed that male teachers as role models matter. This belief was supported by the Commonwealth Review of Teaching and Teacher Education. The majority of teachers in both primary and secondary school are female, and the proportion of male teachers is declining.

Between 1992 and 2002, the proportion of male school teachers in Australia declined from 26% to 21% in primary schools and from 49% to 45% in secondary schools. Across Australia, there are only 4,247 males who are training to be primary teachers - this is just 19% of the total number of teachers in primary training - less than one in five.

Dr Nelson has recently written to the Deans of Education seeking information about male enrolments in teacher education. The Commonwealth is also instigating a study to investigate the attitudes and beliefs of year 11 and 12 male and female students to teaching as a profession. This study will commence in the second quarter of 2003, the outcomes will inform the development of effective strategies to increase the number of males enrolling in teacher preparation courses.

We all have a role to play in providing the love, support and guidance that boys need to become fine men.

I was intrigued by the flowering cactus featured on the Conference literature. A prickly, resilient species that blossoms beautifully given the right environment - a terrific analogy.

It is essential that all of us here today - work together to help boys bloom.

Carl Jung once said -

“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.

“The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is a vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.”

and I might add, regardless of their gender.

Thank you.