Teachers are unintentionally educating pupils to conform to gender stereotypes, new research reveals.
Leading education academics Becky Francis and Christine Skelton argue that the school curriculum reinforces stereotypically male and female behaviour, even when teachers are making deliberate attempts to break down such divides.
The researchers say that messages about how girls and boys should behave are being conveyed from the first years of primary school.
A study of popular reading schemes found that male characters tended to make demands and give instructions: "Look at me, Janet!"; "See me, Jane!". By contrast, girls tended to ask their brothers' opinions: "What shall I have, John?", or ask permission of them: "Please can I play with you?".
In one literacy scheme, the reader quickly learns the name of the male character and his dog. By contrast, his sister remains nameless, and is given only one line of dialogue in all six books.
In their book, Feminism and the Schooling Scandal, Professors Francis and Skelton argue that policymakers, in the interests of providing personalised learning, encourage teachers to emphasise the differences between boys' and girls' learning habits.
"As children are aware from an early age how important it is to be seen as a 'proper girl' or a 'typical boy', then they would take up gendered activities or behaviours, which would then be... encouraged by the class teacher, as a means of enabling their individual needs."
Teachers pit girls against boys in quizzes, academics point out, or set races between boys and girls to complete work, thus reinforcing the sense of difference between them. Boys and girls are frequently asked to form separate queues at the classroom door, and their names are listed separately in the register.
This gender divide is bolstered, the researchers add, by the common belief that girls have to achieve through hard work, while boys are more likely to be effortlessly brilliant. The perception persists despite evidence to the contrary, the academics argue.
Such assumptions also affect grading. When researchers asked teachers to mark boys' science exams, they gave points for accuracy, richness and organisation of ideas. When another group of teachers was given the same work, but told it was produced by girls, they awarded significantly lower marks.
But conventional efforts to combat gender stereotyping rarely have the desired effect, the academics said. For example, attempting to make science lessons more "girl-friendly" merely reinforces the impression of science as a girl-unfriendly subject.
"There needs to be less attention given to the differences between boys and girls," the researchers said. "Any teaching practices based on assumptions of different preferences due to gender (or social class, or ethnicity, or sexuality, or culture and so forth) will ultimately build on stereotypes and help to channel pupils down different routes of learning."
The great divide
Looks vs brawn
A teacher introducing a mixed-sex class to the importance of a healthy diet used different approaches according to gender.
With girls, she talked about appearance "because the girls have got this thing about obviously looking good... they'll talk about being fat or thin".
With boys, she would say: "You need to eat the right food because you need to be healthy to do all these sports."
Similarly, another teacher delivering a design and technology lesson provided the boys with a history of joining through the ages, looking at how men have used joins to serve them in daily life. He used technical terms freely.
But with the girls he related the topic to the domestic sphere. He avoided technical terms, instead opting for simple, user-friendly language.