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By Matthias Eck (UNESCO), Catherine Jere (University of East Anglia) and Justine Sass (UNESCO)

Despite tremendous progress in enrolment over the last 20 years, current estimates indicate that 259 million children and youth are out of school. Over half of these – approximately 132 million – are boys.

While, globally, girls remain less likely than boys to enter school in the first place, in many countries, boys are at greater risk of disengagement and dropout. Prolonged school closures and the longer-term impact of COVID-19 on learning loss and school dropout are likely to exacerbate existing gender disparities unless steps are taken to address the learning needs of all.

As the new UNESCO Global report on boys’ disengagement from education shows, boys are more likely than girls to repeat primary grades in 130 of 142 countries with data – indicating poorer progression through school – and less likely to proceed to upper secondary education in 73 countries, compared with 48 countries where girls’ show disadvantage.

Where previously boys’ disadvantage has been of greatest concern in high- or upper-middle-income contexts, including Latin America and the Caribbean, the Report’s analysis shows that new patterns are emerging. Several low- and lower-middle-income countries have seen a reversal in gender gaps, with boys being left behind at primary and lower secondary levels (see the Figure below). In the Gambia, for example, where 88 girls for every 100 boys were enrolled in primary education in 2000, 90 boys were enrolled for every 100 girls in 2019. In Nepal, the gender gap in upper secondary enrolment has also reversed dramatically. In 2000, there were just 62 girls enrolling for every 100 boys; by 2019 there were 89 boys enrolled for every 100 girls.

While there has been some progress in narrowing gender gaps to boys’ disadvantage in Latin American and Caribbean countries in lower secondary, they remain wide at upper secondary. In other countries, boys continue to be disadvantaged or the gender gap is widening. In 2019, just 76 boys for every 100 girls were enrolling at lower secondary level in Lesotho – a situation little changed since 2000.

In all regions except sub-Saharan Africa, young men are less likely to proceed to tertiary education. This disadvantage is particularly acute in North America and Western Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean regions, where only 81 young men for every 100 young women are enrolled in tertiary education.

Boys also lag behind girls in learning outcomes, particularly in fundamental skills such as reading. In 57 countries with data, primary-age boys fare worse than girls in mastering reading skills, and adolescent boys continue to fall behind at the secondary level. Gaps in reading skills start early. In 23 of 25 countries with data for proficiency in reading at Grades 2 and 3, the proportion of girls achieving minimum proficiency in reading is higher than the share of boys.

But why do boys face these challenges in education?

Poverty and the need to work are among the most important drivers of poor participation and school dropout. As a 16-year old boy from Lesotho interviewed for this Report said:

“Having no lunch at school discourages me to love school as I sometimes go to school with an empty stomach. Sometimes when I cannot afford to buy myself lunch or do not have a lunchbox it means that I am not eating that day.”

Another 15-year old boy from Lesotho noted: “Parents tell me to go and search for missing cattle, I sometimes return late and no longer have a chance to read.”

Gendered norms and expectations impact on boys’ motivation and desire to learn. Not only may boys feel pressure to work and earn money, but, in many contexts, school activities and certain subjects are considered at odds with expressions of masculinity, making education unpopular with boys.

Practices such as the streaming of classes and gender segregation contribute to boys’ low motivation, underachievement and disengagement from education. Harsh discipline, corporal punishment and other forms of school-related gender-based violence impact negatively on boys’ academic achievement and attainment. A secondary school-age boy from United Arab Emirates reported:

“I still remember the hitting. In Grade 5, I had a teacher who for some reason hated me and made me hate studying. As a result, I became stubborn and refused to study. I still remember the teacher once brought an electrical cable and had two boys hold me, and he hit my legs with the wire to the point where I couldn’t walk.”

Fear and experiences of violence lead to increased absenteeism and may contribute to dropout. Boys are more likely than girls to experience physical bullying and are often targeted because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Conflict and forced migration exacerbate challenges in accessing and completing education. Language barriers, mobility and discrimination contribute to educational exclusion.

The Report shows that there are only few programmes and initiatives addressing the phenomenon of boys’ disengagement from education. Comprehensive policies to address the issue are even more rare, and predominantly found in high-income countries. Few low- or middle-income countries have specific policies in place to improve boys’ education, even in countries with severe disparities at boys’ expense.

Yet, targeted action to improve educational opportunities for boys not only benefits boys’ learning, employment opportunities, income and well-being, but it is also highly beneficial for achieving wider economic, social and health outcomes, including gender equality. Educated men are more likely to treat women and men equally and support gender equality policies. Men and boys who have a secondary education are more likely to condemn gender-based violence.

Globally, improving educational opportunities for girls continues to be of paramount importance if gender equality in and through education is to be achieved. Not only do girls in many countries continue to face challenges in accessing quality education, but they also have to contend with inequality, discrimination and exploitation as they transition into the world of work and adult life.

However, it is also vital to ensure that a focus on achieving gender parity and equality does not ignore boys. Access to quality education for all is not a zero-sum game. Supporting boys does not mean that girls lose out, or vice-versa. On the contrary, equitable and inclusive education opportunities benefits both girls and boys, and can, ultimately, help transform society.

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