The rising cost of educating boys is a problem that disproportionately affects them.
Despite significant gains in enrollment over the past two decades, it is estimated that 259 million children and youth are not in school at this time. A little over 132 million of these are girls, making up more than half of the total.
Even though girls are still less likely to enrol in school than boys worldwide, many countries see boys as having a higher risk of disengaging and dropping out. Unless action is taken to address the learning needs of all, the gender gap will widen as a result of prolonged school closures and the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on learning loss and school dropout.
In 130 of 142 countries with data, boys are more likely than girls to repeat primary grades, indicating poorer progression through school, and in 73 countries, boys are less likely to proceed to upper secondary education, compared with 48 countries where girls show disadvantage. This is according to the new UNESCO Global report on boys’ disengagement from education.
The Report’s analysis reveals new patterns where boys’ disadvantage has previously been of greatest concern in high- or upper-middle-income contexts, such as Latin America and the Caribbean. Boys are falling behind girls in education at the elementary and secondary school levels in a number of low and middle-income nations (see the Figure below). In the Gambia, for instance, the gender enrollment gap has narrowed from 88 girls for every 100 boys in 2000 to 90 boys for every 100 girls in 2019. In Nepal, there has been a remarkable closing of the gender gap in tertiary education enrollment. The gender enrollment gap has widened from 62 females to 100 males since 2000. In 2019, 89 males will enrol for every 100 females.
While the gender gap favouring girls has shrunk in lower secondary education, it remains large in upper secondary education across Latin American and Caribbean countries. There are still places around the world where boys face discrimination or where the gender gap is widening. There were only 76 boys for every 100 girls enrolling in lower secondary school in Lesotho in 2019. This ratio has barely budged since 2000.
Young men are less likely to continue their education past high school everywhere except in sub-Saharan Africa. This disparity is most pronounced in the Americas, Western Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean, where only 81 males for every 100 females are enrolled in postsecondary institutions.
Reading and other elementary skills are areas where boys’ educational outcomes lag behind those of girls’. Boys perform worse than girls do in learning to read at the primary level in 57 of the countries for which data is available, and this trend persists among secondary-school-aged boys. Reading proficiency gaps emerge at a young age. The percentage of girls who reach at least the basic level of reading proficiency is higher than the percentage of boys who do so in 23 of the 25 countries with such data.
But why do boys have it so hard in school?
The need to support one’s family and the consequences of not having enough money to do so are two of the most significant factors that contribute to low school engagement and dropout rates. Quoted in this Report is the opinion of a 16-year-old Lesotho native who was interviewed for his perspective on the country’s situation.
Sometimes I go to school hungry, which makes it hard for me to get excited about learning. When I don’t have money to buy lunch or a lunchbox to bring it in, there are days when I don’t eat at all.
Another Lesotho boy of the same age noted, “Parents tell me to go and search for missing cattle, I sometimes return late and no longer have a chance to read.”
Boys’ interest and drive to learn are affected by gendered expectations and norms. It’s not just that boys can feel social pressure to work and earn money; it’s also that, in many places, school activities and certain subjects are seen as incompatible with expressions of masculinity.
Boys’ low motivation, underachievement, and disengagement in school are exacerbated by practises like gender segregation and class streaming. Boys are harmed academically by harsh discipline, corporal punishment, and other forms of gender-based violence in schools. The following was reported by a United Arab Emirates secondary school student:
I can still recall being punched. My fifth-grade teacher had a personal grudge against me, and as a result, I grew to despise school and learning in general. I became defiant and would not put in any effort to improve my academic performance. One time in class, while being held down by two of the other boys, my teacher brought out an electrical cable and hit my legs with it until I couldn’t walk.
Increased absenteeism and possible dropout are both effects of fear and experiences of violence. When it comes to sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression, boys are more likely to be bullied physically than girls. Access to and completion of schooling are further complicated by war and displacement. Educational exclusion is exacerbated by factors such as language barriers, mobility, and discrimination.
The Report reveals that relatively few programmes and initiatives exist to counteract the trend of male youth disengaging from formal education. Even fewer countries (mostly those with higher incomes) have implemented comprehensive policies to address the issue. Even in countries where gender gaps in education are particularly glaring, few low- and middle-income nations have taken action to close the gap.
Targeted action to improve educational opportunities for boys is not only good for the boys themselves in terms of their education, employment, income, and well-being, but also for broader economic, social, and health outcomes, including gender equality. Men with higher levels of education are more likely to advocate for gender equality in the workplace and treat women and men fairly. Secondary-educated men and boys are more likely to speak out against gender-based violence.
If gender equality is to be achieved in and through education, it is crucial that educational opportunities for girls are improved on a global scale. Although progress has been made in some areas, there is still a long way to go before girls everywhere have equal opportunities in education, employment, and personal development.
It’s important to make sure that efforts to achieve gender equality don’t marginalise young men in the process. Everyone should have the chance to get a good education, and this is not a zero-sum situation. By focusing on boys’ needs, we are not neglecting those of girls or vice versa. Education that is accessible to all, including girls, is transformative not only for individuals but for society as a whole.