COMMENTARY: The Underachievement of Boys

A Reflection by Mervin Alexander – Retired Teacher/Education Officer

For sometime now we have been hearing this statement especially after an examination, whether it be Grade Six National Assessment or CXC.  Listening to a Caribbean newscast I also heard the same statement from a professor in Jamaica lamenting that fact especially in Mathematics and English Language.  The entire debate on boys’ underachievement is viewed in relation to the achievement of girls making it look like a question of rivalry between boys and girls. Among the many questions we should be asking ourselves are:

  • Do school and schooling processes question or reinforce the existing societal norms of masculine and feminine behaviours, images and practices?
  • How do these various factors, socio-economic backgrounds, socialisation, expected gender roles and schooling processes act on and interact with each other and get manifested in boys’ underachievement?
  • Does the trend of boys’ underachievement mean a situation of gender privilege for girls?

It is generally accepted that a child’s achievement at school will be determined by factors both inside and outside the school environment. The big question for all and the Ministry of Education is what can be done inside the education system to improve the attendance and performance of boys.  As the famous poem states “Children Live what they learn”.

The definition of masculinity itself has proved problematic for academics tackling this issue, and has been caught between dominant, popular perceptions of masculinity within societies on the one hand and a reality of multiple masculinities on the other. Davis (2002) tackles the plurality of masculinity that often arises by simply putting forward “the social and culturally constructed meanings or definitions attributed to being male” as a working definition and, although he also argues that masculinity should be considered in multiple forms, he maintains that the “traditional” or “conservative” perspective of masculinity usually dominates the discourse. In addressing the developing literature on masculinities, West (1999) looks at the portrayal of masculinity in the media using clichés that depict masculinity as natural and innate, and he suggests that there has been slow progress in the academic study of the subject that would more clearly highlight the term’s multiplicity. The public debate, he further argues, dominates the academic one, a consequence of the issues around boys’ underachievement being linked to feminism, and any questioning of boys’ perceived difficulties being linked with a “reaction against feminism”.  Addressing “common themes of masculinity”, West’s study unpacks “traditional” masculinity as being based on three dicta – perform, protect, provide – that incorporate the idea of proving and testing (proving to/ testing by other men, women, themselves) that “they are not female”.


I am no expert, but in my humble opinion, it is very difficult for boys these days and our society has a lot to do with what is happening with boys today.  Let us look at a few scenarios.

  1. Boys cannot show emotions. If a boy is hurting, he cannot cry because ‘men don’t cry’.  That is seen as a sign of weakness, so naturally from a very tender age he is forced to hold back emotions and play macho.
  2. There are many avenues for girls/women to express themselves and very little for the boys/men when they can boast as exclusively male:

                  (i)Carnival – there is the Princess Show, Miss Teen Pageant, Miss Dominica, and Mothers’ Queen Show. The Calypso Show was at                          one time all male and the winner was called the ‘King’. Women has entered so it is now called ‘Monarch’. The junior Calypso is the                          same thing.

                  (ii)Independence – There is Miss Ti-Matador, Miss Wob Dwiyette, Madam Wob – where are our males? The other activities like the                      traditional dances, short stories, etc are for all.

                  (iii)At one time in the Catholic Church, altar servers were all males, females are now there also.

                  (iv)Sports – Traditionally growing up certain sporting activities were designated as male sports and female sports. While at school,                      especially in Primary schools, we all play the various sports, however when it came to a team to represent the school, Cricket was                          boys, Rounders was girls. Volleyball was unisex. In Secondary schools Basketball, Football, Cricket – boys; Netball – girls.  Even on                    a national level.  Now the girls/women have infiltrated all sports that were traditionally males.

(v) Growing up, the Scouts and Cubs regiment was all males while there was the Girl Guides and Brownies for the girls. The girls are                        now into the scouts.

What is left for boys to shine as ‘male’ since there are females in everything that were traditionally male, while the traditional female groups and activities remain exclusively female.


  1. What about Male Models/Mentors?

The absence of male role models is a factor that comes up regularly within the literature on boys’ underachievement, and it assumes the stance that boys’ needs within both school and the broader society are different from those of girls. In the Caribbean context, where the number of women-dominated and single-parent households has been on the rise, the literature reviewed presents strong concerns about the lack of male presence within the home as well as the school. Hunte (2002), in the context of Guyana, argues that boys will seek out negative macho role models to fill the gaps at home or school, and that the resultant anti-schooling attitudes will leave an emotional deficit that inhibits their progress. Figueroa (2000) takes this further and suggests that the absence of discipline meted out to boys in Jamaica by women – who believe this to be the preserve of a father or other male figure – disadvantages boys by permitting their exploration of negative masculine identity to be played out unchecked.  West (2002) analyses the problem of an imbalance of male and female teachers, which potentially disadvantages boys by giving messages that ‘only women teach’ and ‘only women read’. His paper further outlines studies that have been conducted in Australia showing that boys value male teachers as role models to get them through the difficulties of the classroom. West quotes a paper by Bress (2000), who argues that males and females have a different language – ‘genderlects’. This theory arguably takes the issue of role models out of purely socialisation discourses and into the more contentious area of gendered heredity. One of the few findings that addressed the issue of boys’ educational underachievement and under-participation in Lesotho also stressed the lack of male teachers in the educational system.

During my stint as a teacher in Primary Schools, in one school I was the only male among five females; at another there were three of us male and the principal in comparison thirty-four females.  Whist we were few in numbers, we made our presence felt in all aspects of the school life and the boys did very well.  When others, especially adults would make negative comments about them, we did not hesitate to support them.  I recall one incident when my ‘All-boys’ choir at the Goodwill Primary School, which was very strong and big, sang at one of the Ministry of Education Primary Schools’ Music Festival, people were in awe at how well they sang and one lady made a comment that they ‘singing like girls’.  Of course, I responded to her and told her how wrong she was, and proceeded to explain to her some fundamentals of the singing voice. This is a statement you would never hear in a metropolitan country since they are very exposed to ‘ALL MALE’ choirs.   Today I see some of my former male students whom I taught in primary schools who are lawyers, accountants, managers, whose pay far exceeded mine even as an Education Officer.

I recall as an Education Officer, visiting the Eastern District where there was only one male Principal in the Primary Schools of that district – at the castle Bruce Primary School – and guess what – he acted for nine years, retiring as an acting Principal while I know of certain females who got their appointment within two years.  Of course, he had a Bachelors in Education and Administration.  Is that encouraging to our male teachers?  Now that he has retired the statement is ‘he was a good principal’. What hypocrisy!

What example are the grown men, fathers, uncles, big brothers to these boys today?  What are they seeing?  Look around, men are absent in many essential activities in our society today.  Call a PTA meeting, the mothers are present, very few fathers are present.  Look in our Churches, very few men are present, where are they? We all know the answer.  Is that something positive for our boys?  You visit the barber shop and the conversation is nothing edifying. The talk is either about their exploitation of women and girls, ganga smoking, alcohol drinking and of course some very indecent language.  I once had to say to the guys in a shop there are children present and of course the response to me was, “these are things they are hearing every day; all you too hypocrite”.

Look at how many of our men and young men dress, especially how they wear their pants, what are we telling our boys?

We as grown men, and women too need to do more to help our boys.  There are too many negatives around them.  I heard a female radio announcer made the comment that she has three girls who will one day be looking for husbands and she wonder what will become of them.  We have to do something to help them to see more value in the male species other than drinking rum, smoking, fighting, sitting by the roadside, talking about the exploitation of women and the like.  No amount of teaching with technology is going to change them.  Trust me they know of the technology already and can handle it better than us grown-ups.  Our boys need good examples, good vibes.  Let’s try to seek solution to the problem rather that rub it their faces all the time that the girls are doing better than them.  Something needs to be done and quick!

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  1. Gary
    August 22, 2020

    It is sad reading such commentary from someone who was entrusted the to be an educator. We must call things for what they are, this is simply an opinion of a Masculinist with a very superficial view. There is a fundamental reason for the so-called Underachievement of boys. Females are looked at as inferior to Males, it has been an aged old stigma, as a result, females are forced by natural instinct to work twice as hard to prove themselves that they are not inferior, as a result exceeding the expectation of the male inferiority complex. A question that should be asked, if boys are being perceived as underachieving, then why they are the majority in Leadership roles when they become adult men.

    To suggest that Boys cannot show emotions, is somewhat ludicrous, boys are taught not to show emotions. An emotion is a natural biological state which all humans are endowed with. This
    topic is complex and should not be looked at in a superficial manner.

    • Stop Neglecting our boys
      August 24, 2020

      If everytime someone speaks of issues affecting boys and men they are labelled as “masculinist” or “sexist” how can we ever have an honest discourse ?

      As for the “leadership” question. Thats an unfair comparism. If a lawfirm is 90% female and the head is a man, would you still argue that there is no problem with male underacheivement until the lawfirm is 100% female ? …that’s basically waiting for the problem explode, before fixing it.

  2. August 21, 2020

    What do you expect, when you have a boy leading this country.

  3. Bob D
    August 21, 2020

    Education is not sitting in a class room and CRAM for the greater part of a young students life’s journey, Brother Mervin is standing in the middle of the forest and cannot identify any of the Trees, his anglo saxton upbringing, plus not relating to the past subjugation of his people is the main factor. The fabric of Dominica society was created by England, not for the descendants of Sugar/coffee or cocoa, did he pass on this information to his students?. Teachers don’t teach what is foreign to them, subjects taught,Have been part of the syllabus from the dawn of your Africans Male Indoctrination. When the African Man/Woman is given the true knowledge, there will be no more discourse in who and what the the Black woman does to uplift herself. Did you teach your students that after emancipation every African man/Who was left behind? did you Mr Alexander teach them their History? Yet you teach about a CRUCIFIXION that is suppose to save them, while partaking in the very same crime.

  4. Nkrumah Kwame
    August 20, 2020

    Bro, I love the commentary! One disagreement, though. The girls have not “infiltrated” the male sports. They are simply exercising their rights to participate in sporting activities. Just as there are no male/female jobs, so too is it with sports.
    The MAJOR variable in “male underachievement” has to be placed squarely on the shoulders of PARENTS, whether they be mother/ father headed or single parent headed.
    There are too many “parents” who don’t know how to be PARENTS! Once one knows how to be a PARENT, then everything else falls in line.

    • We Need to Care for Our Boys
      August 22, 2020

      Everytime we open up a previously all male category, to women, we are doubling the opportunity for women and simultaneously halving the opportunity for men. Because, whilst all exclusive female spaces like girl guides and pageantry competitions remain exclusively female; no new spaces are being created for male expression.

      I will use Carnival again, as it is most relevant to our society.

      In recent years most of the competitions have shifted to giving scholarships to the winners. But statistically a woman has 3x the chance of getting a scholarship.

      She could participate in the carnival queen pageant, should could participate in the Calypso queen competition, and she can still participate in the Calypso Monarch competition.

      There are still 3 all girl high school in the capital city and only one that is all male.
      Is it really a wander why our boys have fallen back.

      Nobody cares !

  5. Shaka zulu
    August 20, 2020

    Whithout reading this and doing any research i will point out my observations related to Dominica. I remember a time when there were many male principals in the primary school system. How many do we have today. What we have seen is a steady decline in men taking up there role and responsibility in being good examples and role models in the communities, in the churches and in the early childhood education system. The drug dealer in the community is more pleasing than the man who works an honest living. Values of hard work honesty, integrity, humility, and the other fruits of the spirit are not important. Being a man in Dominica is who can run more woman and who can spot the lates brand and fanciest car. The decline did not happen overnight. I remember when my fight was who can beat who on a physics or geo test. Today the young ones know more about guns and ammunition and sewo. Asa bantan was made an embassador so we all know bending for your car keys is the way to go. I say no more.

  6. Jonathan Y St Jean
    August 20, 2020

    Boys will only be characterized as underachieving by me,when the curriculum is designed for the stimulation of learning by boys,and yet the boys don’t measure up. The author is correct that the over-focus on girls at the expense of boys has let the boys down, and in the medium term society will pay a bad price unless they correct this misguided policy. Just look at the US,where following the government’s policy to pay support to women and not to men, has left men feeling devalued and neglected, and the result is increased murder and mayhem in neighborhoods by men. Dominica needs to learn from the mistakes of others and take remedial actions before it’s too late. Men and boys are not girls and women and as such do need different stimuli to live by. I’m glad that women are getting their just focus but the boys need to get theirs back or too late shall be the cry.

  7. We Don't Care About our Boys
    August 20, 2020

    I am very passionate about this issue. But alas I rarely speak of it, for fear of being labelled as “antiwoman” or “sexist” …and it is precisely this fear that keeps our boys sidelined.

    We took the 1st world feminists ideology and injected directly into our society even if it doesn’t apply to us.

    The USA has never had a female head of state, but we had a female Prime Minister for 15 years ! And that was 20 years ago. There have always been women in leadership positions in Dominica.

    And point number 2 is very important: every SINGLE avenue of male expression in our country has been made universal, yet all the female spaces remain female.

    We used to have a Carnival King and Queen. However now we have a situation where the Calypso Monarch, Carnival Queen, teenage pageant, carnival princess and junior Monarch could all be female !

    Its no wonder so many of our young men get caught in the gang life trying to prove how masculine they are.

  8. Roger Burnett
    August 20, 2020

    If we focused education on art, as Herbert Read suggested eighty years ago, there would be little or no difference in achievement between boys and girls. Both sexes are equally as creative.

    Our outdated notions of what subjects boys should do and what girls should do doesn’t help. Sixty-five years ago boy in my class wasn’t allowed to do cookery and a girl wasn’t allowed to do metal work. But against all odds, the boy went on to be a master pastry chief and the girl became the head of a company of agricultural engineers.

    I hated football, but the game is the passion of my daughter Tania’s life.

  9. click here
    August 20, 2020

    Its because too much focus has and still continues to be put on the development of women. But women are already accomplished and playing field is level. Most offices and banks are women. NEP the majority is women, classrooms in institutions of higher learning, still women. Young men have been relegated to the sidelines. International donors put funds aside for women and impoverished youth for their development. Young men prefer to let their girl friends go out there and find the job while they hustle and hang out. Many jobs arent suited for women, but that doesnt stop them from rising and doing them still. Our young boys many grow up woithout father. they lack discipline and structure. they lack morale and integrity, thus they fall by the wayside and lose out on many valuable social skills. Some as simple as holding a conversation or manners. Many have big gold chain but read at a 3rd grade level. Our women need plenty guidance too, in order to become ladies. Its not all about fashion.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
    • We Need to Care for Our Boys
      August 20, 2020

      Exactly. We continue to follow the first world ideology that we need more advocacy for women ….all whilst ignoring our boys. Scholarships for the various pageant winners (all female), international donors for women …and for the boys ???…silence….

      This will hurt our culture. Our Dominican children need fathers. Educated, functional fathers ….and then our Dominican women will eventually be unsatisfied with the cadre of mates they are left to select from.

      I’m appealing to our Dominican single mothers of sons; please do not let your son fall onto the wayside, whatever sins his father committed, do not punish the boy. Find a proper role model for your sons.

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