15th January 2010 at 00:00
Sociologist, feminist and former teacher Diana Leonard says work on gender and learning was thrown out with the national curriculum - now it needs doing again

Did you want to go into teaching initially?

No - I went into teaching because it fitted in with being married and having a family. I graduated in 1961, then did a PGCE after that. I'm still of that generation, which is now retired, who thought teaching was a good thing to have if anything happened to your husband. It wasn't until 10 years later with the women's movement that the idea that you had to get married was questioned. Teaching was essentially a job that women went in to in order to be better with your own children. You would be a good mother if you knew some child psychology, but it also meant that you could maintain primary childcare responsibilities during the school holidays.

How did you get into academia?

I taught for a couple of years in a secondary school in Clapham, London, and was married and had my first child. My then husband got a job teaching in the University of Swansea. So I was moved, as one was "moved" then, and I couldn't get a teaching job, as Wales overproduced teachers. I felt really burned out from teaching, though. They happened to have a studentship going at the university, and so I switched over and did a PhD, and years later got a job as a lecturer at the Institute of Education.

What do you think is the single most important factor for children's achievement at school?

Parents' socio-economic background and their interest in, and encouragement of, their children.

Why do you think the issue of single-sex education is so contentious?

It's because it's about the opposition of the sexes. I like the old phrase sex antagonism because that is quite sexy and is part of what attracts people in heterosexual couples - the difference as well as the common interest they might have with the other person. Basically, it is to do with sex. It's frustrating that in the past it's not seen as having more connection with sexuality and other important aspects of the women's movement.

How did you get involved in the women's movement?

Even before I started to get involved, my feminist politics went ahead of me and I couldn't get a job. The academic community thought I would come in and sow sedition and upset the wives. So I became so involved, partly because I didn't have a job. I was part of local consciousness-raising and activism to get various facilities provided, including women's refuges. Because I had been teaching I remained interested in schools, and local communities were much more active as a whole.

What educational policy would you get rid of?

I don't think we should be getting rid of the remaining single-sex schools as carelessly as we got rid of other schools. Our evidence is that it does not make a huge amount of difference; it is the type of school and class background that is the most likely indicator of success at 16, at 18 and going into HE. But there are benefits: girls make less traditional subject choices in single-sex schools and they get more teacher time and attention. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to make any difference in later life in terms of gender roles and the domestic division of labour. But some girls prefer single-sex schools, and some parents prefer single-sex schools.

What is the biggest challenge facing teachers?

Coping with the changes that come in - the restructuring, the new initiatives. The difficulty is that each of those things, whether it is comprehensivisation or the national curriculum, has knocked out loads of earlier work on gender. We developed critiques of what was in the curriculum of schools prior to 1988 and then that all gets thrown out when the national curriculum comes in. All that work needs to be done, about the biases in the subjects and the way that the subjects are taught. But politicians need to be seen to be doing something about what appears to be the unsatisfactory state of schools.

What is your biggest achievement?

Getting gender on to the agenda in the mid-1970s. It's unbelievable the extent to which it wasn't on the agenda in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a really interesting combination of academics working with schoolteachers, working with parents; you don't often find such a set of alliances. But there was a moment, and that moment was seized.

What has been the biggest influence on your career?

I benefited from coming out of a period where there was a lot of collective action - being part of a political movement when people thought in social class terms and gender terms; when there was a community and time in people's lives to get together, organise and to promote and critique ideas. I don't want to idealise the women's movement, because there were plenty of disputes within it, but it was a time when people were not so worried about their jobs, not so pressured, and when childcare was not so time consuming as it has become. Parents now really think they have to devote so much time and attention to their children. I'm from a time when we slightly ignored our children and got on with changing the world



Emeritus professor of sociology, Institute of Education, London


Professor of sociology, Institute of Education, London


Lecturer in sociology, Institute of Education, London


Science teacher in London.

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