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Life lessons: better education for boys means good health for life

Boys’ educational outcomes are heavily influenced by positive male role models and effective models of discipline. The Tattered Coat

As another set of high school exams roll through, there will undoubtedly be significant focus on how boys’ results differ from those of girls’.

This is part of an ongoing focus on the trend of girls’ academic results being consistently higher than boys, at least as measured by such exams as New South Wales’ Higher School Certificate (HSC) results and university entrance scores.

The 2011 cohort will almost certainly be analysed in the same way, with quite possibly the same conclusion drawn as in years past – that girls do better at school than boys, with the implication being that boys are “floundering” when it comes to study, or that “boys don’t succeed at school”.

Proportion of 20 to 24-year-olds with year 12: 2001-2010.

However it is achieved, a solid education is one of the foundations to success throughout life. While there are many approaches and views on what makes a good education, it’s widely recognised that education is a key driver of health status in life, for both genders.

Education is also recognised as being a fundamental determinant of being healthy – the World Health Organisation (WHO) lists it as one of 14 social determinants of health. The social determinants approach to health is one that examines all the factors that go into making a person healthy.

So the success or failure of boys'education clearly impacts heavily on other aspects of life that add up to being healthy and finding better ways to engage boys in their education really is important.

And it follows that a significant contributor to future male health in Australia will come from improving the levels of engagement and, therefore, benefits that boys gain from a complete and rounded schooling.

Engaging boys in education

There’s a growing body of research and practice on ways to better engage boys with education and schooling.


And the fact that boys’ educational outcomes are heavily influenced by positive male role models and through effective models of discipline that enable them to understand boundaries is gaining widespread recognition.

Steve Biddulph calls this a mixture of “warmth and sternness” that combines with “undefensiveness” – that is, an ability to manage the needs of a boy while engaging his interest in the subject at hand.

Several, mostly private, schools have found specific approaches that are working well to improve how boys interact with their schooling environment.

Tudor House in New South Wales, for instance, encourages active breaks during the day that enable boys to engage in physical activity that better balances the need for quiet learning with more active pursuits.

The King’s School, also in New South Wales, is renowned for an approach that encourages an environment blending sport, practical classes and other hands-on pursuits.

And many other schools are putting similar approaches that recognise ways that boys learn and how that differs girls’ learning, in place.

The inclusion of “rough” or “active” play during the schoolday seems consistent with research that shows the biological effects on boys and girls when dads use rough and tumble play.

There is increasing evidence that biochemical responses and changes occur in dads when they interact with their children.

And there’s some physiological evidence suggesting that boys in particular need a male’s interaction in their lives to develop normally.

Research by the University of Newcastle has demonstrated a hormonal response from rough play, which adds evidence that males have evolved to learn through active play as much as by verbal or written learning.

Dr Richard Fletcher speaks to Radio RTRFM in Perth about new research that uncovered how dads’ oxytocin levels increase after rough play sessions:

So, schools like Tudor House have found a strategy that works and seems to have its basis in the natural biological differences.

Education and male health

Successfully educating boys, and finding and implementing strategies that work to keep boys engaged, needs to become part of the health debate.

There needs to be broader discussion about the lifelong connection to health that being educated and being engaged with learning brings, especially among boys.

If boys can interact safely with male role models and enjoy schooling and therefore do well in life after school, then great strides will be made towards improving aspects of male health, especially in marginalised male populations.

This may be a highly important factor for health improvement throughout the life course. And it comes back to engaging boys with positive male role models – good fathers and good male teachers – who can show them what it means to learn effectively while enforcing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

What other approaches do you know of that are being put in place to better engage boys? How much impact does effective schooling have on health outcomes of men in the life course?

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