Plans to create more specialist schools risk driving pupils to take stereotypical 'female' and 'male' subjects. Athalie Matthews reports.
THE increase in specialist schools and vocational training proposed in the education White Paper will threaten women's career prospects, the Equal Opportunities Commission has warned.
EOC chair Julie Mellor believes that the Government's plan to create 1,500 specialist schools by 2005 and bring in new areas of specialism will exacerbate the existing trend for girls to choose typically 'female' subjects which lead to less well-paid careers.
The emphasis being placed on specialist schools, which will now offer strengths in engineering, science, business and enterprise, maths and computing - as well as the existing areas of technology, languages, sports and art - could lead to a return to the two-tier system of male and female education, she said.
The main danger was in the way prospective pupils would perceive schools with certain specialisms as being 'male' or 'female' rather than considering the quality of education received, she added.
And while girls' long-term pay prospects were likely to suffer, there was a risk that boys would feel unable to apply to schools specialising in subjects traditionally associated with girls.
"Even at the lowest levels, girls' and boys' perceptions of their own aptitude for different subjects is affecting their life chances.
"A pupil doing a modern apprenticeship in IT - a favourite with boys - will earn pound;140 per week, whereas someone doing health and social care - a subject often chosen by girls - will get pound;98. By the time boys and girls reach the age of 20 there is already a 10 per cent pay gap, and by retirement this gap has widened to about 50 per cent.
"The proposed system is in danger of exacerbating this trend, unless specific measures are taken to combat it," Ms Mellor warned.
The introduction of vocational GCSEs - to include health and social care, art and design, business, engineering, information and computer technology, leisure and tourism and manufacturing and science - would also add to the risk of gender-specific subject choices.
With more and more options being introduced into the curriculum at key stage 4, young people will be increasingly vulnerable to making decisions influenced by role models perpetuated by the media and some parents and teachers.
If the Government went ahead with the proposals it would be vital to carry out more work to break down stereotypes at primary level before children make their life-forming choices, Ms Mellor said.
Holding 'taster days' where boys and girls are taken to see a workplace traditionally associated with the opposite sex, inviting young people who have entered non-stereotypical careers to speak in primary schools and holding discussions in single-sex groups, would all be important moves towards preventing a dichotomy.
As part of its drive to combat stereotyping, the EOC is planning to distribute teacher resource packs containing ideas for activities designed to challenge received ideas about gender.