Girls aloud

16th September 2005 at 01:00
They are traditionally sugar and spice and all that's nice. Nowadays they're tending more towards frogs and snails and sexual jokes - boys'

territory - but girls are still being pigeon-holed in education, Audrey Osler finds in a survey of 15 years of feminist research

A Feminist Critique of Education: 15 years of gender education Edited by Christine Skelton and Becky Francis Routledge pound;85

The journal Gender and Education has been a valuable tool in helping to disseminate feminist research in education since 1989. Contributors have deepened our understanding of a wide range of issues, from the unequal career opportunities of gay and lesbian teachers, through to debates about boys' apparent underachievement and the school experiences of working-class girls.

While policymakers have not always paid heed to research, Gender and Education has helped ensure that feminist voices are heard and that teachers and decision-makers have access to a range of feminist perspectives. We are indebted to the founding editor, June Purvis, her successors and members of the editorial board in creating and sustaining the journal. The publication of A Feminist Critique of Education: 15 years of gender education is a celebration of their achievements.

Teachers will find much to engage them in this important book. Editors Christine Skelton and Becky Francis have selected 21 Gender and Education articles from 1989 to 2003, the greater proportion from recent years.

Chapters are grouped in seven sections: gender identities, theoretical debate, education policy and management, history, sexuality, ethnicity and social class. The most substantial section is on gender identities.

A contribution from Shereen Benjamin analyses how, on entry to secondary school, girls categorised as having special educational needs become seen as "sweet little girls", "big bad girls" or "lazy girls". Benjamin's analysis is important: unlike most studies of SEN policies and practices, it addresses the role of race and ethnicity in shaping student experiences and identities. She is not afraid to confront racism as a contributory factor in shaping students' lives, noting the tendency for Asian students to be infantilised, and observing how a combination of gender, physical appearance and perceived intellectual ability serve in designating three Asian students in her study as "sweet little girls". A complementary chapter, focusing on a primary classroom, is Diane Reay's study of seven-year-olds, with its memorable title: "'Spice girls', 'nice girls', 'girlies' and 'tomboys': gender discourses, girls' cultures and femininities".

Sheila Riddell's work, first published in 1989 and based on PhD research conducted in part in the rural comprehensive where she previously taught, set out to examine why girls appeared to accept subject choices that inevitably left them disadvantaged in the labour market. Her research remains important, with its acute analysis and careful reporting of both teacher and student behaviour. Teachers will find many parallels with today's classrooms. Riddell shows how students of both sexes manipulated traditional gender roles, with some girls rejecting commonly accepted models of femininity and parodying traditional male behaviours, such as the use of sexual jokes. The chapter provides a useful model that teachers who wish to research their own schools and classrooms can critique and adapt.

I have a particular interest in how school leadership research is belatedly paying attention to diversity, so I was delighted to find a section devoted to education policy and management. I hoped that feminist researchers would give proper attention to issues of social justice and equality, which other researchers addressing diversity and leadership have so far largely ignored. Unfortunately, there is just one chapter in this section focusing on the school sector. Amy Stambach's study of US charter schools examines the language of parental choice and the role of mothers in school development.

The history of education is represented by research on women's engagement in local politics through participation in the London School Board in the last three decades of the 19th century, and by an engaging account of the political education of women in the suffragette movement in Edwardian Britain.

The final three sections of the book are devoted to issues of sexuality, ethnicity and social class and include research directly relevant to teachers' professional practices. Jane Kenway and Lindsay Fitzclarence address masculinity, violence and schooling in the Australian context, and June Larkin reports on research with high school girls in Canada to explore and challenge sexual harassment. The students identified three factors that caused them to accept harassment: the frequency of the harassment; the way it was interpreted or explained away by others, including the harassers; and the fact that it was rarely, if ever, discussed at school.

Larkin proposes a set of strategies which focus on girls' access to non-traditional subjects and careers; addressing gender bias and ensuring inclusive language in teaching and learning materials; creating a safe school climate and preventing violence against women and girls; and empowering them by providing girls-only spaces where young women can develop a sense of solidarity.

Both Gillian Squirrel and Debbie Epstein address sexualities in schools, examining how structural inequalities and silenced sexualities undermine not only teachers' working environments but also the processes of learning.

Many will find Squirrel's powerful and moving testimonies from gay and lesbian teachers disturbing, not least because these stories, first published in 1989, shortly after the notorious clause 28 legislation was enacted, still have a resonance in schools today. Epstein's research with young gay men leads her to argue that misogyny and homophobia are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable.

Just one chapter focuses on ethnicity and schooling, while another, by Fauzia Ahmad, examines British Muslim women's achievements in higher education. Louise Archer and Hiromi Yamashita report on recent research with ethnic minority young men, arguing that these boys, while being attracted to "bad boy" discourses that are anti-schoolwork, were nevertheless able to identify with a range of other ways of interpreting masculinity. They call on schools to build on these, in their efforts to challenge the multiple inequalities these young men encounter.

Skelton and Francis acknowledge that articles focusing on race and ethnicity are under-represented in Gender and Education, and one way of encouraging more work in this area would have been to give this theme more prominence in this book. The lack of an index is a serious oversight in a lengthy book that sets out to represent key themes and debates. My main disappointment is that A Feminist Critique of Education does not include studies from a wider range of countries. With some further editorial work it should have been possible to have included case studies from developing countries and for the editors to have contextualised these so as to make them accessible to a wide audience.

As Nelly Stromquist points out in the one chapter that sets feminist debates within a global context, feminism is much more than a theory of power relations; it is a movement that has fought injustices, poverty and other social and political inequalities which women across the world face.

It is hoped that the next collection of papers from Gender and Education will demonstrate that feminist scholars of education are addressing this challenge.

Audrey Osler is professor of education and director of the centre for citizenship and human rights education at the University of Leeds

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