Nothing succeeds like boy who fails

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Australia. The largest study so far of student achievement in Australia is producing startling findings that contradict the belief that girls are doing better than boys at school.

Although more girls finish school, gain more academic prizes and go on to university in much greater numbers, the study claims the advantages they appear to enjoy are often illusory.

Richard Teese, a professor of education at Melbourne University who led the study, says: "Girls are under greater economic pressure to complete school. But bowing to this imperative does not necessarily confer an advantage on them. "

On the contrary, opportunities for girls continue to be restricted. Professor Teese says the subjects girls prefer do not offer the same benefits as those taken by boys - physics and maths, for example, are mutually supportive subjects.

Girls tend to take combinations of subjects that are "loose and irrational", such as human development, home economics and outdoor education. They also tend not to have the status or vocational emphasis of boys' choices.

Professor Teese is head of the team of researchers working for the federal department of employment, education and training. Over the past two years, his group has surveyed 60,000 students in hundreds of schools in almost every state.

Perhaps the most striking finding is the fact that global statistics, such as how many girls or boys finish school or come top in different subjects, disguise the true picture: that gender counts for less than home and geographical background.

Private-school boys, for example, from the better-off suburbs are far more likely to succeed than girls at government schools whose parents are blue-collar workers. The real question, Professor Teese says, is not whether girls or boys as a group are more disadvantaged, but which girls and which boys.

According to Ann Morrow, head of the federal schools council and chair of the committee overseeing Teese's project, regional differences are a scandal.

"Unless you believe that people's intelligence varies according to where they live, you have to ask why students from the country or from the poorer western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne do worse at school than those from the well-off eastern suburbs," Ms Morrow says. "This is something we cannot afford to sustain."

Professor Teese argues that the university monopoly over the school curriculum must be broken. More options should be provided after school, he says, adding that there is a need to lift the standing of less prestigious subjects by linking them to tangible benefits, such as job training or places in a technical and further education (TAFE) college.

"That way you would get less of the queue phenomenon where everyone lines up at the same door, all wanting to do medicine or law. I'd try to break the monopoly that universities have by building up the TAFE system. You can't strip universities of their power directly, so why not build up a more diverse post-secondary system to reduce that power indirectly?"

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