The Toronto District School Board is contemplating establishing a boys-only public elementary school. This wouldn't be a panacea, but anything that could help reduce the alarming dropout rate among boys - an acute problem in Quebec - is worth trying.
It's a well-researched phenomenon: Boys tend to underachieve in school, while a higher proportion of girls successfully make their way to university. (Female students are a now majority in most faculties.) And this might have to do, at least in part, with the fact our schools are made for girls.
Parents of boys have been complaining for a long time about the way their sons are treated within the school system. Most teachers are female and quite naturally they choose books that interest girls. "My son has been fed a regular diet of novels about emotions and relationships, instead of books dealing with sport and action," says a colleague of mine. Boys are expected to behave like girls: They shouldn't yell, they shouldn't jostle, they should sit still in class. Moreover, they should express their emotions verbally, a mode of communication that comes naturally to girls but with which many boys are not at ease. And, of course, in this overly female world, there are too few male role models for boys who don't have one at home.
True, elementary schools and, albeit to a lesser degree, secondary schools, have always been run by women, at least in Canada. (This might have to do with the low salaries paid at these levels). But two things have changed since the olden days when nobody talked about boys' difficulties in school.
One is that the divorce rate went up, and that a far larger number of families are headed by single women. The father, the male figure, remains the symbol of authority that boys need. (Yes, of course, there are exceptions, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who were raised by single mothers, but when analyzing a widespread social phenomenon, it's better to focus on the average cases rather than the glorious exceptions).
The second change is in the marketplace. There was a time, not so long ago, when a boy without much education could land a well-paid, unionized job in the natural resource sector or in a factory. Now the jobs available to undereducated kids are in the service sector - whether in sales or in the lower echelons of health services - and these jobs are more attractive to women than men.
My elementary school, a small private institution run by nuns, was co-ed until Grade 5, when the nuns stopped accepting boys. We were delighted to be rid of the boys who had been loud, restless and constantly interrupting the teacher in class. The most unruly one was Jean Nadeau, a dark and handsome boy, who had cruelly insulted me when, as I paraded in a school play as the Virgin Mary wearing a lovely white veil fastened by a gold headband, he told his giggling friends that I looked like "an Arab sheik." Good riddance, Jean - and his ilk were gone.
A couple of years later, I would have been happy to be in the same classroom with cute boys like Jean Nadeau, but at the age of 10, we girls loved our same-sex environment. The class was a quiet haven. We would pursue our hobbies in peace - making plastic bracelets, crocheting doilies, drawing beautiful pictures - and we had the whole yard to ourselves so we could form small groups and chat and gossip and talk about the other girls with our best friends. The teachers were relieved, too. The only one who missed the boys was Sister St-Mathias, who was a tomboy and liked to play ball games with the boys.
Maybe it's time to accept the idea that males and females don't necessarily have the same learning patterns and that some of the most vulnerable boys would make more progress in a "boy-friendly" environment.