Working Papers   145

The Reversal of Gender Gap in Learning: Why Boys Are Falling Behind in Upper Secondary Schools

Published: 30-Jun-2024
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Executive summary

The global emphasis on addressing gender disparities in education has highlighted the importance of equitable academic achievement for policymakers, scholars, and the public. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have incorporated gender equity, emphasising the ongoing challenge of ensuring equal access to quality education worldwide. In Cambodia, traditionally a male-dominated society, a notable shift has been observed: female students are now surpassing their male counterparts in school enrolment and academic performance. This reversal has sparked significant public interest, prompting this research to investigate the underlying reasons for gender disparities in academic success. The study aims to identify the factors influencing students’ academic achievements overall and to explore the specific factors contributing to the unequal academic success between male and female students.

To achieve these objectives, the study employed a mixed-method approach, adopting a convergent parallel mixed-methods design. This involved the simultaneous collection and comparison of qualitative and quantitative data to identify notable patterns. In the qualitative strand, interviews were conducted with school directors and teachers, and focus group discussions (FGDs) were held with students. The quantitative strand involved surveys administered to students, teachers and school directors at the sampled schools. The qualitative data were analysed using thematic coding, deriving themes from both the literature review and emergent patterns during the coding process. Quantitative data were analysed using descriptive statistics. Additionally, a validation workshop held in October 2023, involving 36 teachers and 20 school principals and deputy principals, provided a platform to present preliminary findings, solicit feedback, and validate the results and policy recommendations.

The study revealed the multi-faceted factors shaping students’ academic achievements from the perspectives of the participants. Individual student attributes, such as effective study habits, academic dedication, and regular attendance, emerged as crucial determinants of academic performance. However, these individual factors were intricately linked with familial, peer, and societal influences. Notably, students with poor study habits and disciplinary issues often came from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds where parental oversight was minimal, granting children greater autonomy and freedom. Financial constraints and limited emotional support within low-income households contributed to absenteeism and a lack of commitment among students, while household responsibilities impeded their academic engagement, resulting in subpar performance. Furthermore, inadequacies in instructional delivery and extra-curricular support within school settings exacerbated these challenges. Some teachers, constrained by time, prioritised content delivery over practical exercises, necessitating supplementary private tuition—a financial burden for economically marginalised families. Additionally, the lack of strict enforcement of disciplinary measures enabled tardiness and absenteeism among students, compounded by educators’ dual commitments to private tutoring. The promotion of underperforming students to subsequent grade levels exacerbated the academic attainment gap, as students lacking foundational knowledge struggled with their lessons. Peer influence and technological distractions also significantly affected student learning.

In exploring the superior academic performance of female students relative to their male counterparts, similar patterns emerged. However, a key distinction is that male students’ behaviours were more easily influenced by family, peers, school, and societal expectations. For instance, some male students engaged in heavy economic activities, which exhausted them and hindered their learning. Boys were also more likely to engage in social vices and spend substantial time on sports activities that were not part of school extra-curricular programs, leading to school tardiness and absenteeism.

Based on these findings, the study suggests several policy recommendations to mitigate gender disparities in academic achievements. First, proactive involvement from parents, local authorities, and schools is imperative to counteract negative societal and peer influences, particularly affecting boys. Mitigating the availability and promotion of substances like alcohol and caffeinated beverages in close proximity to schools requires joint efforts among stakeholders. Second, while acknowledging the benefits of technology in education, schools must develop mechanisms to monitor and direct students’ technological engagement towards constructive learning and take measures to restrict non-educational usage. Third, expanding sports-related extra-curricular activities can diminish the likelihood of unsupervised activities that lead to unintended adverse outcomes. Initiatives to establish sports clubs, organise inter-school competitions and promote structured sports programs can harmonise academic and athletic endeavours, fostering holistic development. Fourth, ensuring consistent enforcement of discipline and heightened accountability within schools is important to keep students focused on their academic obligations and minimise dropout rates. This can be done by empowering school disciplinary committees and enhancing communication between schools and parents concerning attendance and conduct. Last, addressing financial constraints through need-based scholarships and support services is critical, especially for boys compelled to engage in labour to support their families. Providing access to tutoring and study groups for underperforming students can help bridge academic gaps and promote equitable educational outcomes. 

In conclusion, addressing the gender gap in academic performance requires a comprehensive approach that involves parents, educators, and policymakers. By implementing targeted policies and practices, Cambodia can continue to enhance educational outcomes for all students, ensuring that both boys and girls have equal opportunities to succeed academically.

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