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Into combat over sex-stereotyping

Year 8 pupils had to reassess some of their views after a conference on roles and gender, reports Dorothy Lepkowska

A HUNDRED heads turned as Derek Vaughan entered the assembly hall. Was he the hairdresser? Unlikely. The youth worker? Possibly. The house-husband? Definitely not.

In fact, the big black guy dressed in leathers was a male nurse and the point had, inadvertently, been made: that people make judgments based on appearance, colour and gender.

For 12 and 13-year-old boys of Hurstmere grant-maintained school, in Sidcup, Kent, the one-day conference on gender roles opened a few eyes.

Few, if any, had ever encountered a female army captain dressed in full uniform, or met a pony-tailed roadie who was just as content being a house-husband and caring for his two-year-old daughter as being out and about with the lads.

The idea for the conference - Male and Female Roles in the 21st century - came from the head of year, Ian Parfitt. He said: "We want the boys to be able to assess and understand their roles as males in society, the workplace and at home, and to enable them to respect and value the opposite sex.

"But it is also to address the whole issue of boys' under-achievement. They have to realise that they have no natural right to the best jobs. If they want to get on they will have to work hard for it, because girls are competing and succeeding."

The boys, divided into mixed- ability groups of 15, rotated around 10 speakers including women working as solicitors, video-producers and building society executives.

They were interested to learn whether fatherhood affected the social lives of the men, and if women, given the choice, would prefer to go to work or stay at home with their children. House-husband, Julius Warren, was questioned on how he could look after a toddler AND do the housework at the same time.

Ken Tompkin, the head of Hurstmere, said the predominantly white and relatively privileged intake of pupils meant that many arrived at the school with preconceived ideas and images of the world around them.

"Most of these come from the home, and while we have to respect the way parents are bringing up their sons, we also feel it our duty to challenge some of these ideas and make the boys think about society and how they are going to fit in as adults," he said.

For William Tennant and Christopher Dee, both aged 13, the event had the desired effect.

Christopher said: "I now know that I should not judge people until I know more about them. It was quite strange to find out that women can also have successful careers in the army and have as much chance in getting on and being the leaders of men."

William added: "I think children of our age know that women don't stay at home anymore. We are all equal."

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