Boys trailing girls in UAE schools, report shows

An international test of maths and science skills found boys lagging far behind girls in UAE schools.

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DUBAI // Schools are failing to reach boys and contributing to a growing gender gap in the country, a Ministry of Education report has found.

About 60 per cent of all Grade 4 and Grade 8 boys in the country were found to be ill-prepared in core academic subjects when they took the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test last year.

The study, conducted every four years in more than 40 countries, evaluates the maths and science skills of children aged 10 and 14 to rate the quality of education systems. Last year, more than 28,800 pupils in the UAE participated.

Most of the boys tested lacked the necessary reading, maths and science skills for their age, according to the report.

Grade 4 boys were 18 points behind female pupils in science subjects and eight points behind in maths. In Grade 8, the difference increased in favour of girls. Boys achieved 17 points less than their female peers in maths and 25 points less in science.

In the Programme for International Literacy Reading Study (PILRS), a test conducted at the same time, boys trailed girls by 27 points. Overall, boys were found to have basic subject knowledge but they could only apply it to straightforward situations. They could not comprehend complex situations or use information to solve problems.

A TIMSS and PILRS report, compiled by the Ministry of Education, found “an extensive knowledge divide between boys and girls in the UAE”.

At the report’s launch yesterday, officials said there was an urgent need to reduce the gender gap.

Fatma Al Marri, chief executive of Dubai Schools Agency, which works under the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), said the results should be used fruitfully to address concerns.

“We have to understand why there is a gender gap and these assessments give us an idea,” Ms Al Marri said. “Many times the entire blame is put on the teacher. I agree they are important but several other factors contribute to why boys are not performing.”

She believes one of the biggest challenges is to motivate boys to study. “We need to improve boys’ attitudes towards education.They need to be encouraged and that can be done through a better school environment.”

Arab countries showed one of the biggest gender gaps in education, which the report suggests may be because most follow a single-gender schooling system. The gender gap was more pronounced in UAE state schools, which follow such a segregated system, than in private schools.

In Dubai, Grade 8 boys in state schools were lagging by 80 points in science and by 45 points in maths. Grade 4 girls scored 27 points more in maths and 30 points more in science.

By contrast, 10-year-old boys in the International Baccalaureate, Indian and UK school systems scored about 15 points more than their female peers.

Dr Mike Helal, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Parkville Global Advisory, which helped to analyse the Dubai report for the KHDA, said the gender gap reflected the quality of boys schools.

"The gap is not between pupils sitting in the same class," he said. "What we are seeing is a gap in the quality of schooling."
Dr Helal said background surveys conducted during the tests found that boys in state schools were not interested in maths.

“Boys demonstrated a much lower level of engagement, interest and enjoyment in the subject.”

Dr Christina Gitsaki, head of foundation programmes at the Higher Colleges of Technology, said boys needed action and movement to learn.

“The literature shows that boys need to be involved in more kinetic activities,” she said, and that teachers needed to increase their tolerance of noise in the classroom. “You cannot have such learning activities in the classroom and not expect the noise level to go up.”