Three recent articles in the Trinidad & Tobago press have high focused on what is now a global debate about boys and education. The recent shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan for her activism around girls’ education reminds us that in most of the Global South girls literacy and enrollment rates lag behind boys, often because of overt gender discrimination against girls or other practices such as child marriage which impinge on girls right to an education.
In the Caribbean the debate around boys and education has centered on seeking explanations for why generally girls do better than boys in secondary school entrance examinations, CXC examinations and why they subsequently outnumber boys at university (though not in all fields). Explanations have ranged from: arguments that co-education and women teachers are disadvantageous to boys, that wider societal marginalisation of men is reflected in educational attainment, that the curriculum, educational system and teaching styles favour girls.
A former Minister in Trinidad & Tobago recently argued that:
We are destroying our boys in this country. Our education system is not built for training men. Little boys cannot sit down, little boys can’t stay quiet, little boys have to stand. They are different! And we continue to treat our boys like girls. You are destroying them.
One of the critical things we have to deal with and understand is that we have to redesign the whole system to understand that if we want men, we have to build an education system that trains men.
Professor Rhoda Reddock made a very important point that is often missing in this debate: that the education system is failing girls too:
I think our education system is uneven and class-based. The poorest groups in the society who need the most support, the most facilities, they are not the ones getting this. So the education system basically reproduces the class and socio-economic structure.”
Reddock believes our system is overly competitive, with too early specialisation and based primarily on examinations from very early ages. It does not ensure that all children, no matter what their socio-economic background, are allowed to perform at their best. For children, education should be enjoyable, engaging and stimulating.
It’s important to remember that Caribbean education systems were not designed with the needs of girls in mind. They come out of a history of racial and classed-based exclusion and gender discrimination. The sit-down-and-shut-up approach to teaching benefits neither boys nor girls. Often, concern about boys in schools is wrapped up within other concerns about maintaining relations of gendered power which favour men and furthering normative notions of masculinity associated with dominance and heterosexuality.
Sociologist Dylan Kerrigan had this to say:
At this year’s Matriculation ceremony at UWI, St Augustine Campus, there was an interesting visual contrast. In the front row, sat ahead of the new first year undergrads, were the top performers at this year’s Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA). Understandably they looked nervous as they waited to be honoured. On the main stage were senior UWI officials, there to welcome the incoming undergraduate class of 2015, as well as offer congrats to the SEA’s stars.
The contrast wasn’t between those looking nervous and the more composed regulars at such ceremonies. Rather it was about gender. Of the SEA students sat in the front row 12 were girls and one boy. Of the 13 senior members of the UWI Administrative and Academic staff on stage ten were men and three women.
The visual contrast is anecdotal. Yet when thinking about equality of opportunity based on gender it does prompt the thought—why if girls are massively outperforming boys at age 11 are there not more women represented on stage amongst the top tier of UWI officials?
As boys performance relative to girls is often extrapolated to predict the end of Caribbean men, Kerrigan demonstrates that that is definitely not the case.
The question still remains, how to improve Caribbean education systems so that they benefit all children? Absent from these debates are socio-economic and racial exclusions as well as exclusions and discrimination based on dis/ability, mobility, mental health and sexuality. If we are concerned about boys’ experiences in schools then we have to be concerned with all of these issues because they are all issues which affect boys.