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Boys Are at Greater Risk of Dropping Out of School, Unesco Warns

Amid several crises threatening students’ attendance at schools around the world, a recent Unesco report notes that boys are at greater risk than girls of dropping out of education.

While the report highlights the issue as a “global phenomenon”, some of its regional comparisons show that boys in Arab states are at particular risk.

The report, titled “Leave No Child Behind: Global Report on Boys’ Disengagement from Education”, attempts to shed light on the conditions that cause this phenomenon and urges nations to take steps to counteract it.

Its authors studied data on boys and education in over 140 countries. They found that, while girls remain the majority of children out of school at the primary level, boys face challenges too and need support.

“Supporting boys does not mean that girls lose out and vice versa,” the report says. “Equal education opportunities benefit both girls and boys and the broader society.”

Among the factors identified in the report as leading to boys’ disengagement are poverty, the need to work, armed conflicts, forced migration, corporal punishment, and physical violence.

But the problem exists even wealthy societies. In a rare dilemma, “the government’s guaranteed employment policy for Kuwaitis seems to be a motive for young students to refrain from continuing their studies,” says the report.

Enormous Costs

The report notes there are enormous social and financial costs of boys’ disengagement from education.

It lists child-labour practices and poverty among the factors that prevent boys from entering school at all. In many countries, boys repeat grades more than girls and are at greater risk of failing to complete their education and dropping out.

“Poverty and the need to work can lead boys to drop out. To prevent this, states must urgently align the minimum age of employment with the end of the compulsory education.”

Audrey Azoulay
Director-general of Unesco

The report also addresses the concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to an increase in school dropouts. A clear picture of Covid-19’s effects on enrolments won’t be available before the end of this year, the report states. However, it notes that in 2020, the last school year before the pandemic, it was estimated that 259 million children and youth of primary and secondary school age were out of school. Slightly more than half of them, 132 million, were boys.

By education level, the largest share of out-of-school boys is concentrated at the upper secondary level, the report says. In the Arab States and sub-Saharan Africa, it adds, a large proportion (around a third) is also concentrated at the primary level.

Young men are disadvantaged compared to young women in tertiary enrolment in almost all regions, the report says. In 2019, the gender-parity index for tertiary enrolment showed that 88 men for every 100 women enrolled in tertiary education, which includes universities, vocational colleges and trade schools.

This is one area, however, where the Arab region performed better than the global average. The data showed that in the Arab states, 91 young men for every 100 young women enrolled in some form of postsecondary education. By comparison, in North America, Western Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean regions, the ratio was 81 young men for every 100 young women.

Poverty and Child Labour

In 2020, an estimated 160 million children, or one in 10 children worldwide, were engaged in child labour, the report says. Some 97 million of them were estimated to be boys.

The report cites the lack of a protective legal framework as one of the main reasons for these children’s exclusion from schooling. “Of 146 countries with data, only 55 countries have a minimum age of employment clearly aligned with the end of the countries’ stipulated years of compulsory education and above the age of 15,” the report states.

“Poverty and the need to work can lead boys to drop out,” Audrey Azoulay, director-general of Unesco, said in a statement that accompanied the report’s release. To prevent this, she said, states must urgently “align the minimum age of employment with the end of the compulsory education.”

Looking for Solutions

The report says that in some countries, signs of boys already falling behind educationally appear at the end of the primary school level. In 57 countries with data, 10-year-old boys fare worse than girls in mastering reading skills, and adolescent boys continue to fall behind girls in reading skills at the secondary level. This trend is seen across several regions, including the Arab States, which show some of the highest risk of boys dropping out of school.

In Kuwait, “boys are not worried about finding a job after leaving school, regardless of their qualifications or level of education.”

From a case study of Kuwait in the report  

The Unesco report noted that only a few programs and initiatives address the phenomenon of boys dropping out of education. It also provides a set of practical recommendations to prevent boys’ dropping out, make learning safe and inclusive, and promote integrated, coordinated approaches to improve education for all learners.

Kuwait: A Unique Dilemma

The report includes a case study of Kuwait as an example of a high-income country where boys are nevertheless at high risk of disengaging from education.

The study cites an “entitlement culture” in Kuwait as a principal cause of boys’ disengagement from education.  Citizens have come to expect that the government will provide them with life-long, high-paying jobs in the public sector that require little effort on their part. Hence, “boys are not worried about finding a job after leaving school, regardless of their qualifications or level of education.”

The report says that boys lag behind girls in education in Kuwait. They do less well than girls in reading, science, and mathematics.

According to the focus group discussions undertaken in the study, boys were reported to have lower educational aspirations than girls and to display overconfidence because they believe that they will be successful without doing well at school.

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In conclusion, the report recommends the need to promote equal access to education and prevent boys’ disengagement from education, while stressing the need to provide 12 years of free education for all children everywhere.

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