Gender stereotypes live on and still call for vigilance

Kate Myers is senior associate in Leadership for Learning at Cambridge university and an adviser for the London Schools Challenge

From April 30, to comply with the new Gender Equality Duty laws, schools will need to produce a gender equality scheme. Many teachers may resent yet another initiative or wonder why this is deemed to be an issue 32 years after the Sex Discrimination Act was passed. Girls are doing OK, aren't they? And if there is a problem it's with the boys... The Act forced schools to offer the same curriculum to boys and girls. The national curriculum, introduced in 1988, bolstered this by reducing choice and ensuring that some subjects were compulsory. Girls' attainment has risen considerably in this period, as has boys', but boys' results have not improved quite as much. When faced with choice, many boys and girls kept opting for subjects traditionally associated with their gender. This means that the results of both sexes are skewed towards particular subjects - for example, girls and languages, boys and technology. Unless schools and other providers actively promote equality, the advent of new vocational diplomas is likely to exacerbate this problem.

League tables have encouraged schools to become keen on collating data and analysing it to discover which pupils are underachieving, leading to concern about boys' achievement. Many schools are now trying to address this problem.

Yet if schools analyse the underachievers, they find that some boys are doing very well and some girls are not doing well. The overall high attainment of girls masks the fact that some are not reaching their potential. White working-class girls may be doing better than white working-class boys, but not doing nearly as well as white middle-class girls. Partly because of their subject choices, when they reach the workplace, on average these young women will earn 82.9 per cent of men's pay.

But education is not just about attainment. It has a moral purpose, too. We need to be equally concerned about the high rate of teenage pregnancy as we are about the disaffection among young males. What we learn in schools contributes to how we construct ourselves as adults. The experience of the young black woman who is doing well academically but is subjected to daily racial taunts, or the gay young man who learns to expect to be bullied, are not uncommon. Their schooling experiences will remain with them through adulthood and will also influence classmates, who will observe an institution tolerating such behaviour.

Schools have a vital role to play in helping us learn about roles and relationships in connection with gender. To help schools do this, in May 2007 a third edition of Genderwatch will appear. All 62 contributors are donating their royalties to charity. The first edition was published 20 years ago by the then national curriculum body, the School Curriculum Development Committee. Its main focus was to help teachers ensure that schooling was a more equitable experience for boys and girls, and in particular encourage girls, boost their aspirations and qualifications.

The various editions illustrate how education has changed. For the second edition, five years later, new topics were introduced such as performance indicators, development plans and citizenship. New topics in the latest edition include design for learning; early years; English as an additional language; leadership; home-school relations; working with girls and working with boys; and many others.

Although each has been rewritten for the current context, the list of curriculum subjects included has not changed. Schools may not be able to change the world but they can challenge, encourage and widen horizons. The new legislation could be a way to help us do just that.

Genderwatch: Still Watching will be published by Trentham Press in May. All royalties will go to Book Aid International, a charity that promotes literacy in developing countriesl

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