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Brave new world of the gender agenda

Stephen Hoare looks behind the latest statistics on gender and recruitment. The photo in the glossy brochure for Farnham College says it all. Two studious women in lab coats are showing a man how to conduct a science experiment.

It is a pose repeated in various photos throughout the booklet - women are in the driving seat while men look on. The same is found in college brochures throughout Britain. Since incorporation, colleges have had to market themselves much more positively. And creating equal opportunities can be vital when traditionally male-dominated courses such as construction and engineering are declining.

Farnham College has roughly equal numbers of male and female students. Vice principal Chris Pankhurst said: "Farnham is not a manufacturing centre so you would not expect to see male-dominated technical and vocational courses. We cater for an employment market where there are as many opportunities for men as for women."

The Further Education Funding Council shares the vision. Its spokeswoman Patricia Stubbs said: "When the council inspects colleges it looks at equality of opportunity in relation to the curriculum. The inspectorate's role is to point to trends and good practice."

The FEFC is concerned that some courses such as information technology and computing are now enrolling too many men. The statistics on student numbers show how difficult it is to achieve gender balance.

While there are slightly more men than women in the 16 to 18 age band, the proportion of females to males in education or training rises sharply from then on. In the 25 to 59 age band there are some 328,000 male students compared with 543,000 women.

At Dearne Valley College in industrial South Yorkshire women outnumber men almost two to one. Principal Don Davison says: "In our area women have traditionally seen their role as the educators for the family. At the same time the decline in traditional male areas of employment and a growth in part-time and service sector jobs has created more opportunities for women."

But in other colleges the reverse can sometimes apply. Last year, out of 40 youngsters enrolling for general national vocational qualification business studies at Farnham College just six were women. The course coincided with a visit from FEFC inspectors who advised the college to look at its recruitment.

The college's options included encouraging positive female role models among staff and students and making efforts to invite equal numbers of candidates of both sexes for interview. This year, the numbers roughly balance and Dr Pankhurst dismisses the intake as a statistical freak.

"This was very much a one-off. When we interview for places, we take as our starting point the interest and enthusiasm of the individual student and try to find the course that is right for them. We certainly don't try to push people into courses just to even out the sexes."

In inner London at Lewisham College has 52 per cent of students are male. But as in many other colleges, men's and women's interests are poles apart and are based on traditional patterns of employment and aspirations. Technical training is a major part of what Lewisham has to offer and on national vocational qualifications in plumbing, bricklaying and electrical installations the intake is very nearly 100 per cent male.

Balancing out these in other areas of the college the numbers run the other way. Lewisham's GNVQ in health and social care is a case in point. A few years ago the college was inundated with young women wanting to be nursery nurses and carers and had to run two parallel groups. Numbers have declined and it has been hard to fill even one group.

Julian Gravatt, the academic registrar, said: "We don't quite know why this particular course boomed. It may have down to careers advice in schools. But it has shown us that enrolment depends as much on external factors as on our own efforts and there are some things we have no control over."

In spite of this, Lewisham College has tried to even out what it sees as a natural bias toward men. The college has put on women-only courses in traditional male preserves and now runs carpentry for women and has recruited 10 per cent of women on to motor vehicle NVQs.

Earlier experiments to put on women-only courses in building and engineering foundered through lack of interest, although the college has had more luck in opening up its secretarial training for men by relaunching it as office and computer skills.

The college has been tackling deeper social problems that disadvantage women from keeping up with the demands of studying. Mr Gravatt says: "We offer support for students who have to care for young children through our paid childminder scheme which is funded by the European Social Fund. We are supporting 50 students, mainly women but our resources are inadequate to meet the demand that is out there."

For Dearne Valley the challenge is the other way around and the college has had to take active steps to encourage the young men into education - many of whom disillusioned with lack of full-time well-paid work.

Mr Davison said: "We have had some successes in redirecting unemployed male steel workers into the caring professions. While there is a booming demand for women as nursery nurses and nursing home assistants, there are still a lot of opportunities for men as nurses and paramedics."

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