A woman's work is never fun

29th March 1996 at 00:00
School for Women, By Jane Miller, Virago Pounds 8.99

Much of this widely-focused book is predicated on the notion that because most teachers are female, perceptions of teachers are perceptions of women.If you can swallow that one, you won't gag either at the assertion that whatever charges journalists, politicians, administrators or parents bring against teachers and they are many it is women they are really blaming. "The blame is continuous and opportunistic", says Jane Miller, looking back over a history of complaints about physically feeble or delinquent youth, the ignorance of school-leavers and the decline of the family. "Only the pretexts for that blame change".

Jane Miller says history about women is difficult to assemble as coherent,linear narrative. It is hard to tell if her own writing, which exemplifies this, says more about author or subject. In place of linearity she scatters seeds of her own teaching experience, and waters liberally with sociology and psychology, and contrasting threads of British and American history. Here and there are little splashes of literary criticism,George Eliot and Toni Morrison. An aptly female approach, perhaps, but it cannot provide either the context or the perspective of systematic analysis.

You are left to wrest an argument from her chapters by force. It goes something like this. Education provision in Britain split historically along interacting fault-lines of class and gender. Girls, lacking status by definition, consumed low-status education, delivered by working-class dame or pupil teachers (class failures), or governess and unmarried school teachers (gender failures). High status education was what boys had, delivered by men.

Nevertheless the assumption that female nature was to nurture allowed education to fall within women's sphere. As mass education spread, women teachers proliferated, concentrated in "girls'" subjects pastoral care, the younger years and the classroom rather than the office. The smaller the child and the lower its class, the more likely still today is its education to be in the hands of women. Management of schools, particularly primary schools, remains primarily the preserve of men.

So far, so relatively uncontentious. The picture which emerges of the present is more equivocal. Men, fearing the threat of women's otherness, systematically denigrate female activities. Classifying the female sphere as unimportant, they find no reason for boys to knuckle down to education,or play by the rules of the (female) classroom. Girls' docility and co-operation reflects their collusion with women in something which only matters to them. Boys' jokes, boys' values, boys' activities are what really matters. Real men (as, self-confessedly, the Prime Minister) don't need education. But the myriad unemployed give the one Prime Minister the lie. Teachers (women) are failing boys because they cannot teach them how to cope with a gendered world.

Or men may say boys are too important to be entrusted to women's care. Education goes wrong because teachers (women) feminise it, making schools inhospitable to boys. No wonder girls now do better in schools at every level. Boys cannot be expected to shine in a female environment, pervaded by female values. Again, teachers are failing boys, turning them out uneducated and unemployable.

How far you can travel with these arguments depends on your reaction to the first and fundamental elision from teachers to women. Complete that slide and the rest is easy. But the evidence here is too piecemeal and fragmented to be convincing. True, there are well documented facts about the perennial rigging of 11-plus results along gender lines because girls always inconveniently did better than boys, and the retreat from GCSE coursework after its predicted benefit to girls came spectacularly to pass.True, there is currently wider alarm at the fact that girls are now outstripping boys at every level in schools than there ever was at injustices meted out to girls.

But these facts belong to a different case. Jane Miller does her own case a disservice by failing to separate arguments about women as teachers from arguments about women and girls as learners. And it is never quite clear whether her main concern is the boys who won't accept education from women,the girls whose achievements are devalued, or the women teachers who are held responsible for everything which goes wrong.

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