Book of the Week

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES IN SCHOOLS? Gender equality initiatives in education. Edited by Kate Myers. Open University Press pound;15.99.

This important book documents the struggle faced by women in education in the recent past in addressing gender equality, and attempts to show their successors how to avoid reinventing the wheel as the debate continues.

It acknowledges the pioneering equality work in schools in the 1970s and 1980s and the high personal cost to the women behind it, many of whom were operating in a climate in which "posters were hurriedly taken down, conversation was cautious and use of the term (equal opportunities) forbidden on committee reports".

Twelve short accounts by some of the pioneers outline developments in the exciting and testing times which followed the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. They reveal the seemingly insurmountable barriers faced by women leading equal opportunities projects, which suffered from underfunding and short-termism despite support over the two decades - covered in separate chapters - from the Equal Opportunities Commission, the National Union of Teachers, local education authorities and the Schools Council with its Sex Differentiation Project.

Looking back at the "equiphobia" that greeted these efforts in the Eighties, reflected in national newspaper references to the reformers as "snoopers", "loonies" and "bra-burning feminists", this book aims to set the record straight.

It also illustrates that some barriers have shifted under pressure over time, if slowly. Yet, while we have 30 years of equal pay behind us, a recent study commissioned by the Government's women's unit shows that women continue to lose earnings over a lifetime compared with men, with the average difference in full-time earnings a staggering 25 per cent.

The debate on gender and schooling throughout the book is up-to-date, and while it offers few new insights, it is informative - Kate Myers's opening chapter asks "What is, or was, all the fuss about?" and the contributors go on to tell us. Through the Seventies and Eighties, as now, girls did better at school up to the age of 16. Then, as now, this was not necessarily reflected in their later achievement in the workplace, and several writers pursue this theme.

Many of the articles are inspirational in content but too brief or general to allow us to draw on past experiences. The details that are given about various projects (the London borough of Brent's early 1980s strategy for tackling sexism, for example) relate to context rather than content. However, there are good references for those who want more information. The strongest educational message that emerges is that "good equal opportunities is synonymous with good education practice".

But while there are references to ethnicity, race and social class, too often girls are presented as a homogenous group.

In Anne Madden's detailed account of the EOC's role in challenginginequality in the classroom, for example, the range of differences is acknowledged but their impact on girls' lives is not. Differences within groups of girls are wider than differences between girls and boys.

Frances Morrell's chapter on the Inner London Education Authority's work on race, sex and class in the Eighties highlights class as the most important factor in educational success and concludes that the neglect of class was the ILEA's "key weakness". Class continues to be the biggest single obstacle to achievement in school, but New Labour's educational plans avoid any reference to it, other than in the guise of poverty or social exclusion, and it is also largely ignored in this book.

A number of contributors here acknowledge that power relations within the campaign for equality denied some women a voice, that some early anti-sexist work in education was insensitive to issues of race and that a white middle-class perspective was too often presented as the norm. Hazel Taylor, in the chapter on Brent's work, describes black and Asian women's perception of the authority's strategy as Eurocentric. Diana Leonard's challenging chapter implicitly refers to "hierarchies of oppression" and discusses the implications of the assumed consensus between women. That some women have more in common with men of their race and class than with other women has always proved an area of difficulty in the gender equality debate, and this is rightly reflected here.

Changing educational agendas have meant that many schools and local authorities have come to perceive equality issues as "irrelevancies". At the same time, gender equality has become much more firmly entrenched as a management or performance issue, and major challenges for improving the situation of girls - once ridiculed and resisted - are now positively embraced in the Government-driven efforts to raise the achievement of boys (largely working-class boys, though this is not often stated). At the same time there is a reluctance, if not a refusal, among women pioneers in education to acknowledge the difficulties that boys face. One particularly telling recent reference is to "the continuing dominance of white male cultures in school and LEA hierarchies", a subject of Madeleine Arnot's 1996EOC report, Educational Reforms and Gender Equalityin Schools.

Marina Foster, a black teacher who gives academic and pastoral support to African-Caribbean pupils, points out in her chapter, "A Black Perspective", that equal opportunities as a principle has become widely accepted as an objective to regulate relations at work and school - until any one challenges inequality or tries to invoke the principle. Many have learnt this to their cost.

Gillian Plummer Gillian Plummer is a former equal opportunities officer at the University of Essex and a former adviser on assessment for Essex LEA. Her book, Failing Working-Class Girls, will be published by Trentham Books later this month

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