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Professor Barend Vlaardingerbroek

Making schooling work for all (even those problem teenage boys)

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I was quite amazed a couple of years ago to hear that almost two-thirds of university entrants in Iran were female. Not that there’s anything unique about Iran in that respect, of course: the proportion of girls completing secondary school in almost all countries is higher than that for boys, and they tend to do academically better on average, although this varies across subject areas. Boys are overrepresented in special needs classes, drop-out and expulsion figures, and more of them leave school without qualifications. Committees and commissions in several countries, NZ included, have looked into the problem of the educational woes of boys as a group.

Boys are no more a homogeneous group than are girls – in fact they are arguably less so as their abilities and aptitudes seem to exhibit wider ranges than do girls’. For instance, there are more really ‘thick’ boys than really ‘thick’ girls, but there are also more male genii than female genii. A greater proportion of boys are kinaesthetically inclined – they want to tamper with physical objects – and they are commensurately less inclined towards verbalisation. A lot has been written and said about boys’ and girls’ different learning styles, much of which I believe simply boils down to the greater social maturity of adolescent girls over their male peers. Schools are largely ‘verbal’ places which emphasise ‘talking about’ rather than ‘doing’, and where the maintenance of structure and order rely on a level of social maturity that a lot of teenage boys don’t have. As an admittedly sweeping generalisation, conventional schooling is more a girl’s scene.

None of the observations made in the preceding paragraph have suddenly come about. So why has it become such an issue in the past 20 or so years? Answer: the economy has changed. The labour market lost its appetite for unskilled youths, the traditional apprenticeship almost went out the window, and governments responded to youth unemployment by raising the school-leaving age. Many adolescents find themselves staying on in an environment they don’t much like with little light at the end of the tunnel to goad them on – and a disproportionate number of the ‘losers’ since these game-changers have been boys, specifically working-class boys who once left school at age 15 and got a job (problem solved) or gritted their teeth and stayed on to complete School Certificate at the end of Form 5 so they could get into an apprenticeship (problem solved). Educationists and people at large started talking about how schools were failing young people and how the curriculum wasn’t relevant – as though the school curriculum determines vacancies in the labour market.

School has always been, and is still, a means to an end. That end is the entry of emerging adults into the world of work – or rather, as is largely the case today, the transition to higher or further education leading on to a career track. Societies spend megabucks on schooling and have a right to expect a return, namely the production of young people with the cognitive skills and attitudes towards study and work that will turn them into productive citizens who will benefit society in return. Only in that context can we speak of educational expenditure as an investment, a word which implies the expectation of a return, indeed a profit. Of course, the investment mindset is nothing new to parents who have been investing in their children’s future through education aimed at a lucrative career, as many have done for centuries. The real challenge is to get people at large to apply the same mindset to public educational expenditure – especially educationists who in many cases seem to have a fixation with navel-gazing.

What makes schooling ‘relevant’ is more about what happens after schooling than what happens during schooling, and it is the former that should guide the latter. At the lower end, we need to focus on the universal skills of literacy and numeracy – there is no point in discussing career orientation given a teenager who can barely read and write (or, I would add, needs a calculator to work out five times four minus three). In the middle years, we expose them to a wide variety of disciplines so that they can make informed choices come the crucial upper secondary years. But choice can be a two-edged sword, and the Western European systems are more efficient than the British-derived model in that they channel learners into ‘tracks’ – packages of related subjects at upper secondary level that are neatly aligned with tertiary education pathways and, ultimately, career tracks. At school level in a system such as New Zealand’s, the distinction between open subject choice and tracking may become quite blurred by schools offering particular subject combinations such as ‘three sciences plus maths’ for students aiming at science-related university programmes. Obviously, effective guidance is of critical importance, and the middle school years need to be of a standard of rigor that separates the sheep from the goats in the various subjects.

Among the ‘tracks’ that we find in the European systems are technical and vocational tracks. These often involve students being siphoned off into specialised technical schools at upper secondary level. Some authorities treat these ‘technical secondary schools’ as members of the secondary school system while others do not, making school populations difficult to compare on occasion. There is more than statistical nicety at stake here, for there is a pronounced male bias in technical and vocational education which balances out the female bias that has been developing in academic secondary schooling. Male disadvantage doesn’t disappear completely, but it is greatly reduced when boys in technical or vocational education paralleling academic schooling are counted as still being ‘at school’.

Bringing ‘academic’ and ‘technical/vocational’ education together under the same qualifications framework has been a major step forward. Like all good things, the model can be overgeneralised: Unit Standards, which originated in the vocational domain, are remarkably useful things where minimum performance requirements – which may be very high – are involved, but it was misguided to extend them to the traditionally ‘academic’ subject areas. Unit Standards are also tailor-made for that sizeable group of ‘problem boys’. Many boys adopt a minimalist approach to the acquisition of formal qualifications – they will do what is required to attain the minimum acceptable standard and leave it at that. Unit Standards with their two possible outcomes – ‘Achieved/Not Achieved’ – fit the bill perfectly, all the more so when linked to career development pathways. In education as in romance, males are more product-oriented than process-oriented than are females. Teenage working-class boys in particular don’t care a hoot about learning for learning’s sake, but many are switched on by well-defined learning tasks with a clear, eventually occupationally-linked outcome.

There is just one caveat: technical/vocational education is expensive – it requires considerable capital investments especially at the upper secondary level. I believe these to be worth it – given a robust terminating assessment regime, recognised qualifications and an effective alignment with post-school education and training options – but it does accentuate the need for the economically rational allocation of resources. This includes the concentration rather than dispersion of technical/vocational education resources, and makes a strong case for the separate technical upper secondary schools that are a common feature of continental European systems. In the NZ context, the ‘seamless’ nature of the National Qualifications Framework has seen polytechs offering courses at NCEA1-3 level (‘high school level’), another good example of rational resource use. It also supports the case for single-sex schooling, as workshop technology resources at a boys high school will serve a considerably larger number of students than in a co-ed school of the same student population. But that opens up another issue which, while certainly relevant to the matter of ‘problem boys’, space will not allow me to pursue on this occasion.