How to Increase Boys’ Attendance in Secondary Education

In South Asia, boys often drop out of school due to poverty, illness or to assist their families in agricultural work, leaving their education incomplete. Photo: ADB
In South Asia, boys often drop out of school due to poverty, illness or to assist their families in agricultural work, leaving their education incomplete. Photo: ADB

By Md Shamsul Arifeen Khan Mamun

In countries across South Asia, boys are dropping out of school for economic reasons, illness and other issues. This hurts not only families and the futures of these children but the broader economy and society. Governments can take basic steps to help keep boys in school.

Gender disparity in education is a priority issue in South Asia, where girls’ access to education is a challenge. But evidence shows that boys’ participation in secondary education is also low in some South Asian countries, according to UNESCO. The enrollment ratio of girls is higher than for boys in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and India, according to UNESCO data.

In Bangladesh, by the age of seven, girls’ attendance is better (88%) than boys (80%), according to recent data. The gap continues until the age of 17, which is usually when secondary education ends. In post-secondary education, the trend reverses, with the attendance rate being lower for girls.
Many boys In Bangladesh start dropping out of school at about age 11, according to recent studies. The main reasons include costs (60%), lack of interest from parents or students (20%), or illness (20%). As boys grow up, work or other economic activities, and sometimes failure in school examinations, are key reasons. 

Reasons for dropping out of secondary schooling vary with age. At the entry level of secondary schooling, households’ spending on education is a dominant reason why boys do not continue in school, according to the UNESCO. In Bangladesh, almost 64% of household spending goes to school fees such as admission and examination fees.    

As boys mature, their involvement in economic activities — working on family farms, small businesses, or migrating for work — presents obstacles to ongoing education. Many rural families depend on small-scale farming or commerce and male members of the family are the main source of labor. 

In rural areas during peak harvesting season, many families have no any option but to send male household members, especially boys, to work. Some families migrate to other areas for work and they bring male children to assist. As they consider the cost of schooling as a burden, some parents opt for the immediate benefit of work and earnings rather than the long-term benefits of education. 

In a nutshell, the  the work opportunities for boys often cause a lack of interest among parents in further education after primary school. Moreover, boys who are low achievers in school are more susceptible to being removed because parents think education is not a good investment. 

Secondary education is a crucial ladder to higher education. At this level, boys’ under-participation generates a challenge to a country’s human capital development. 

A World Bank estimate shows that if boys had the same learning-adjusted years of schooling as girls, a child’s annual productivity would be 0.4% higher in South Asia. Boys being out of school also has broader societal implications, including increased social violence, weakened community cohesion, poorer health, and economic instability.

 Although all over the world sick children miss school at an early age, the situation is acute among boys in some South Asian countries.

To increase girls’ participation in secondary school, conditional cash transfers, such as the Female Stipend Program, target girls from poor households. This social assistance program achieves a broad range of development objectives, including increased participation of girls in education. 

Other objectives include poverty alleviation, delaying girls’ marriage, and delayed pregnancy. However, this program does not cover boys and students who do not attend secondary school, irrespective of their household economic situation. 

To compensate for the working and earning opportunities of boys, one solution may be a targeted full scholarship to needy but academically qualified boys that covers direct costs of schooling, including fees.  Another cost-effective intervention may be to disseminate information on the benefits of education. One study found that providing information on the benefits of education led to 0.23 additional years of schooling.

Another potential intervention may be to accommodate local agrarian calendars by adjusting the school calendar and timetable, for example, rescheduling annual examinations away from the peak labor demand period. A research study has found evidence that annual exams overlapping with major local harvesting periods cause higher school dropouts in Bangladesh.

Although all over the world sick children miss school at an early age, the situation is acute among boys in some South Asian countries. For example, at a very early stage of secondary school (age 11), almost 20% of boys drop out compared to 6% of girls. 

Conditions like diarrhea, anemia, and infection by parasitic worm are leading causes. School level health intervention like improved sanitation facilities in schools, free supply of vitamin A supplement, deworming medication at the terminal age of primary education may work to reduce dropout among boys at early age of secondary education. 

Child labor and seasonal migration are structural problems in South Asia, including Bangladesh. There is a national law prohibiting child labor but it takes into consideration local socioeconomic circumstances and accommodates agrarian calendars. 

 All children deserve a good education, and broader societal and economic interests are served by an educated populace as well. Some basic measures should be taken to assure that students, including boys, get the opportunity to complete their education.