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Richard Prebble: Boys’ education

When the Rugby Union does its review of why the Black Ferns are world champions and why the All Blacks are not, I know what they will not consider; how we are educating boys.


David Kirk, the captain of an All Black team, wrote a thoughtful rugby book, so it did not sell.


In it he said he thought the All Blacks got their edge from fathers teaching their sons the fundamentals of the game from a very young age.


My moko is seven. I have been taking him to basketball, touch and little ripper rugby for two years. He has never scored a basket or a try. He is smart. I can see he is losing interest in sport.


I have to confess I have told the family he sucks at sport but that his piano teacher says he is the most promising pupil she has ever taught.


I read a review of Richard Reeves recently published book “On boys and men”. I bought it. I realize I am wrong. My moko does not suck at sport; his problem is he is a boy playing against girls. In a recent game, all seven of the tries were scored by girls. Nothing unusual. The girls usually score all the points.


I can see the girls’ confidence and self-belief growing each week.


Reeves cites evidence that by age seven girls are physically and mentally on average a year older than boys. The development gap grows until it is two years. Boys only catch up to girls when they are adults.


My moko is playing against players that are developmentally a year older. The difference between 7 and 8 is a lot which is why the teams are graded by age.


When I compare my moko to the other boys I realize he does not suck at sport.


Richard Reeves was not writing about boys' sport. He is a fellow of the prestigious Brookings Institute. He was writing about a subject he was warned off, a taboo subject, the crisis in boys’ education. He says despite the warnings, he felt compelled to write the book. The more he researched the greater he realized the crisis has become. He produces evidence that the way we are educating boys is devastating many men’s lives.


He cites the growing gender gap in school grades, the dropout rates, the numbers of boys leaving school with no qualifications, the collapse in vocational courses, declining male university enrollment and the huge gap between female and male graduation rates.


Reeves is using American statistics but says the trends are occurring in all Western countries. The percentage of New Zealand domestic university students who are men has reached an all-time low of 39 percent. While our statistics for our failure in Maori and Pacifica education are readily available, gender statistics are much harder to find, just like America. Try doing an Internet search for boys’ education and see what I mean.


The Education Department goes so far as to post that there is no crisis and to claim boys and girls can be taught the same way. This government did a big review of all aspects of education. I could find no mention of boys' education.


Here is what I have found. There is a grade gap. In the seventies when we have School Certificate there was no gap. Now boys are far more likely to drop out early, fail to achieve any grades in NCEA, male enrollment at university is falling and women are far more likely to graduate.


Reeves says we refuse to examine these statistics because of a fear that in doing so we are somehow opposed to girls' success. Reeves believes we should be capable of holding two thoughts, celebrating girls' success and wanting our boys to also succeed.


I can confirm what Reeves says. I am one of the country’s most read columnists. Each week, despite pay walls, more people click on to read and then comment on my articles. I write on a wide range of subjects using my three decades in parliament experience. There is one subject editors red line - boys’ education. I have to rely on websites like this to be able to write on this taboo subject.


I feel compelled to tell you that I have raised more girls than boys, so I am delighted with the greater opportunities my girls now have. I can also say the boys found schooling more challenging.


The response from some feminists is that the wage gap somehow justifies the school gender gap. Reeves produces statistics that in America among women who do not break their career there is no wage gap. I suspect that is true in New Zealand. But think about what is being said. The pupils who our schools are failing the worst are Maori boys. Maori males have a lifetime wage gap.


Reeves says we need to acknowledge boys and girls develop at different rates and learn in different ways. He does not think we need single sex schools. His radical solution is for boys to start school a year later, what Americans call red shirting. He quotes data showing those boys who are red shirted do better at school, university and life.


I can confirm this. I was red shirted. From my first day of school my teacher struck me on the hand every time I picked up my pencil with my left hand. I went on strike. My worried parents had me repeat standard one. I found being slightly older was an advantage. It was only when my father decided to teach me that my academic learning took off.


This confirms another one of Reeves solutions: boys learn better with male teachers. America like New Zealand has a crisis in literacy. The answer says Reeves is more male primary school teachers and male teachers of English.


I am sure that is true for this country.


Reeves has a number of interesting observations about the role of boys. He says we have, quite rightly told girls they can do anything. Women are successfully entering and even dominating previous male professions. We have not rethought what it means to be a male.


While women do have an advantage in the careers that require empathy it does not mean that many men don't also have empathy. He cites the shortage of nurses. It is worldwide. Many men could have a very satisfying career in nursing. As men dominate among patients in areas like drug and alcohol addictions, we need more male nurses. Yet as a profession for men it is still looked down on. I suspect until we change our attitude we will never have enough nurses.


We have to be willing to see if things we have done to help girls have affected boys. The international educationalist Joseph Driessen says adding literacy into NCEA math to help girls worked but as boys often struggle with literacy it lowered boys’ marks. Math is a requirement of a range of occupations boys do well at.


I do not pretend to have the answers. My suggestion for little ripper rugby is just as they have grading games for the teams they should grade the players. Other sports do it.


For boys’ education, let us acknowledge that while many boys succeed too many are failing. It is not an attack on girls’ education to acknowledge girls and boys develop at different rates and learn in different ways.


A good start would be if all those interested in education read Richard Reeves thoughtful book.



The Honourable Richard Prebble CBE is a former member of the New Zealand Parliament. Initially a member of the Labour Party, he joined the newly formed ACT New Zealand party under Roger Douglas in 1996, becoming its leader from 1996 to 2004.


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