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Gender equality in the new councils;Comment;Opinion

In the light of widespread nervousness about whether the new education authorities will have the resources and experience to make sensible judgments about priorities, there is particular concern that the slow but significant progress over the past 25 years in issues of gender inequality could easily go into reverse.

Our recent research study on Gender Equality in Scottish Schools: The Impact of Recent Educational Reforms found that by mid-1995, 20 years after the Sex Discrimination Act, only one Scottish education authority was without a formal equal opportunities policy, but guidelines and implementation were at very different stages in various regions. In the majority of authorities, attempts were made to comply with legislation and publicise opportunities for women, but not to influence their choices.

A minority of regions, however, had made more determined efforts to reverse gender inequality trends through positive action, such as management courses for women and job-sharing opportunities. In the most advanced of these, emphasis was placed on equality of outcome as well as of opportunity, on reforming the institutional factors which contribute to inequality, and on the involvement of parents, pupils and community. What was clear from these enterprising authorities was their dependence on having a key individual, with both drive and authority, to move developments forward.

As things stand, many of the new authorities have not yet decided who will have responsibility for this crucial area. Substantial numbers of those with such responsibility in the old authorities are feeling profoundly insecure about their futures and this critical area is, like other aspects of equal opportunities, apparently in disarray. There is no detailed policy statement on gender equality from the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department. Nor is the matter accorded any prominence in performance indicators. Comments on gender equality have seldom featured in HMI reports on schools in recent years, so external pressures to address these issues have been slender.

On top of this, there are fears that in the new pattern of smaller education authorities a smaller number of officers will shoulder multiple responsibilities and matters such as gender equality may well slip down the list. The absence of external pressure, together with the dilution of input to issues of gender, race, class and disability from committed specialist staff, could readily result in retreat into the reassuring rhetoric of "diversity management".

While this promises, in a comforting and ambitious way, a net to catch the needs and aspirations of everyone in the organisation, it carries the danger that equal opportunities issues disappear into the broader processes of business efficiency. Gender equality matters could well be obscured by greater pressures from other quarters at any given time.

More positively, it can be argued that schools in some authorities have made enough progress in the area of equal opportunities to ensure a momentum that will take the movement forward over the disjunctions of local government reorganisation. This was especially true in secondary schools where the technical and vocational education initiative had forced an accountability scheme that explicitly focused on gender distribution within the curriculum.

The situation in schools in some of the smaller authorities was much less promising, especially in the primary sector. This has obvious implications for the new authorities, particularly those with small populations. They cannot assume that gender equality has been established and taken root. They have to pursue it in their policies and practice. Guidelines and explicit accountability measures are essential.

Adequate resources have to be allocated and the attention of parents and school boards has to be drawn to both the social justice and economic implications of equal opportunities. Those key individuals with drive and authority have to be identified and given status as the pivotal characters in the central role equal opportunities play within the broader educational repertoire.

Sally Brown, Sheila Riddell and Eileen Turner are in the education department of Stirling University. The research study is available, price pound;14.95, from the Publications Unit, Equal Opportunities Commission, Overseas House, Key Street, Manchester M3 3HN.

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