Boys’ Underachievement in Education: An Exploration in Selected Commonwealth Countries

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Gender disparity in education is an old phenomenon. Traditionally, girls have been at a disadvantage in most parts of the globe, and they continue to be so even today. This is especially the case in the Commonwealth, where gender disparity is apparent in schooling participation rates in many countries. Although a number of Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, Europe, East Asia and the Pacific have achieved gender parity in primary and even secondary enrolment rates, most Commonwealth countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia still have significant gaps, with the proportion of girls not attending schools being much higher than that of boys. In fact, the Commonwealth is home to more than two thirds of the world’s out-of-school children: nearly 75 million of about 115 million primary-school-age children in the world estimated to be not attending school. Girls have a disproportionate share, as about 35 to 40 million of the nearly 65 million girls out of primary school globally are in the Commonwealth.

However, a number of countries, many of them in the Commonwealth, have also made tremendous progress in girls’ education in the last one to three decades. As a result, gender disparities are narrowing in many parts of the globe. At the same time, a new phenomenon has emerged in certain countries where gender disparities in education are turning in favour of girls, and therefore against boys, both in terms of participation and performance. This is particularly evident in countries that have achieved universal access and have high participation rates for both girls and boys, at least at the primary stage of schooling (including a number of Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, Europe, East Asia and the Pacific, and some in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. A commitment to achieving gender parity and equality in education in the Commonwealth makes it important to take note of this trend and to understand it better. This is the background leading to the present study, which was initiated as a response to this issue being raised by member countries at the 15th Commonwealth Conference of Education Ministers (CCEM) in Edinburgh in December 2003.

The fact that the entire debate on boys’ underachievement views this in relation to the achievement of girls makes it look like a question of rivalry between boys and girls. Although it is unavoidable to compare the achievement of boys with that of girls in such a discussion, the framework used for the present analysis is not that of gender rivalry. On the contrary, this discussion views the issue as another manifestation of gendered social processes and uses the frame of gender equality to understand it.