Don't sweep gender under the carpet

24th January 1997 at 00:00
I was ticked off by a fellow governor at our last full business meeting. He said that, as chair of governors, I was not doing my job properly unless I visited the school regularly during the working day. The other governors defended me, pointing out how much time I spent attending evening meetings, dealing with correspondence, reading and writing reports. But essentially he was right, and I promised to try to get into school more often. "Look at gender issues," suggested my headteacher. Good idea. I can think of one or two before we start.

The first is the assumption by my male colleagues that, because I work at home as a child minder, it is easy for me to make time during the day for my duties as a governor. In fact it is extremely difficult and expensive, as I have to find, and pay, someone the children and their parents know and trust to cover for me. The alternative is to take the children into school with me - just about acceptable for a carol concert or a classroom visit, but not for a headship appointment.

However, now that the two boisterous boys I look after are at playgroup two mornings a week, I can go in to school with just my quiet girl for a couple of hours. We decided to spend some time with the two mixed reception classes and the Year 1 class, where we have, at last, a male teacher. Our school has been entirely staffed by women since the previous head left. I have always disliked the message conveyed to children by the all-too-common set-up in primaries of a male head and female teachers.

Curiously, in our village, the primary, the high school and the upper school now all have female headteachers. Children here could be forgiven for echoing the boy in the Eighties cartoon plaintively asking his father if a man could ever be prime minister.

The concerns about gender issues are coming from the upper school, where girls are outstripping boys at GCSE and A-level by dramatic and increasing margins, not just in the arts, but even in the previous male strongholds of maths and science. The consensus seems to be that this disparity is more to do with attitude than aptitude, and it is interesting to try to determine how and when these attitudes to learning are acquired.

Perhaps the question to be asked is not, why are boys failing, but why, at last, are girls succeeding? My own feeling is that the increase in coursework and modular examinations has favoured girls, who are generally more organised and temperamentally better suited to sustained effort than boys. If this is the case, the good practice I saw when I visited our reception classes is designed to minimise these differences.

Children are encouraged to organise and plan their own time, finish tasks and work co-operatively. Discipline is enforced by praise and positive comment - "Thank you, those of you who came straight to the carpet when I called you" - and I really could not see any marked differences in behaviour and attainment between the boys and the girls.

Not until playtime, that is, at which point the girls stayed indoors, socialising in small groups, grooming each other's hair, drawing and chatting, while the boys all rushed outside to kick balls about and pretend to kill each other. Where should we look for the origins of gender differences? I suggest that the womb might be a fruitful area of study.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the east Midlands

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