Letter to the Editor of The Spectator

IBSC Executive Director Tom Batty wrote this letter to the editor of The Spectator in response to the article Why Boys Fall Behind, written by Richard V. Reeves and published online October 15, 2022.


For the Editor, of The Spectator in response to the article Why boys fall behind by Richard V. Reeves, 15th October, 2022.

I write having spent 36 years as a teacher and in leadership roles in schools across government, Catholic and independent sectors in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. Whilst I was educated,  trained and began my career in coeducational environments, I have spent 32 years with boys’ schools. In July of this year, having completed 14 years as principal (head) of a boys’ school in Australia, I returned to the UK and took up the role as Executive Director of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC), an association based out of the US, which I had previously served as board member and chair.

In this article, Richard Reeves makes powerful, evidence based, argument for why boys fall behind, but the matter of what can be done is left hanging for policy change. Boys’ schools act intentionally for boys and offer choice for families pondering the developmental evidence presented by Reeves and the best path for their child, and they have much to offer the policy debate.

Recreating the conditions of broader society at a stage when the timings and rates of development of children can be at its most varied does not, necessarily, result in the healthiest growth for each child. Reeves notes that brain development follows a different trajectory for boys than it does for girls, and that across economically advanced nations, boys are 50 percent more likely than girls to fail at all three key school subjects: math, reading, and science. How coeducational schools respond to this for the boys in their schools is an important question for parents enrolling their sons, just as it is important for parents considering enrolling their sons in boys’ schools to ask for response to matters of broad social development.

In and out of class, boys’ schools can take time to provide experiences that build the relationships, respect and trust on which boys thrive. They can find the time to run activities and nurture the stories upon which boys hang their learning. They can take the time to know each boy and guide him to choose engagement with, rather than separation from, learning. They can take time to steer recruitment and professional development towards staff skilled in learning relationships and the development of boys.

Such factors have long been central to the education of boys. In an environment where education and ‘success’ are increasingly premised on a content/test/qualification format, schools are increasingly struggling to find time for what works for boys. The gap widens.

And there is good evidence of success. In his significant work, Achievement in boys’ schools 2013-2016, Dr Michael Johnston of the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand notes, ‘The overall picture that emerges is that young men at single-sex schools gain NCEA qualifications, University Entrance and New Zealand Scholarship passes in greater proportions than their counterparts at coeducational schools.’

Cognisant of the possible selection effect ‘that parents with high aspirations for their sons are more likely to send them to single sex schools than other parents’ Dr Johnston notes, ‘Even so, the single-sex advantage is quite striking across nearly the full range of data considered and certain potential confounds, such as socioeconomic variables and choice of assessment type are shown not to be plausible explanations for the demonstrated single-sex advantage.’

The International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) is dedicated to the education and development of all students at boys’ school across the world. Its greatest gift lies in the diversity of its 250 strong membership and the facility this provides for connecting members to each other across countries, sectors and cultures, to share and learn, through action research, virtual and in person professional development, and sponsored research partnerships with leading researchers in boys’ education.

There are many fine co-educational schools, there are many fine girls’ schools and, throughout the world, across government, independent and Catholic sectors there are many fine boys’ schools providing choice for families and acting intentionally for the boys in their care and the societies they will serve. As we become increasingly aware of evidence such as that presented in this article, those involved in boys’ schools have much to contribute to the policy discussion.

Tom Batty 
Executive Director, the International Boys’ Schools Coalition