It's a boygirl problem

13th July 2007 at 01:00
Gender is still an issue in schools, but the challenges are more subtle and harder to tackle, says Gerald Haigh

Genderwatch: Still watching

Edited by Kate Myers and Hazel Taylor with Sue Adler and Diana Leonard

Trentham Books pound;23.99

Royalties donated to Book Aid International

Do we still need to be watching gender balance in schools? Two decades ago, as Kate Myers reminds us in her introduction: "A significant number of primary and secondary schools were offering distinctly different curriculum experiences, and where pupils were given the opportunity to make choices, many of them chose according to whether they thought subjects were appropriate for boys or for girls."

Certainly one of the underestimated benefits of the national curriculum has been to guarantee equality of entitlement. Where social change happens quickly, though, it goes right across the board. So just when we think we're beginning to have the gender issues sorted, we realise that there is now a host of new challenges involved.

Kate Myers outlines some of these: "...massive decrease in the availability of low skilled jobs ...increase in sole households ...decrease in the number of people marrying ...pressure on women, who now expect to be in full-time work, but continue to have the major responsibility for childcare and domestic work".

This book is an update of Genderwatch! also by Kate Myers, published in January 1987 by the then School Curriculum Development Committee. This latest version is a substantial volume consisting of 60 papers or schedules as they're called by 70 contributors from across the educational spectrum, including schools, higher education and administration. It comes as a new report finds the gender gap is widening, with girls outperforming boys in almost every subject at GCSE.

The research, from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DfCSF), shows that girls start to outstrip boys at nursery, and by the time they are 16 they are outperforming boys by an average of 10 percentage points at GCSE.

While Genderwatch has at least lost the exclamation point in this new edition, the issues can seem more subtle and harder to tackle than 20 years ago. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the paper "'Underachieving Boys' and 'Overachieving Girls' Revisited Rhetoric and Reality".

Tim Oates, former head of research at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, tackles (with close analysis of sometimes neglected research) the myths and assumptions around the relative performance of boys and girls.

"Media focus on so-called underperforming boys pays little attention to important subtleties in the nature of the problem and in the research findings," he writes, going on to argue that over-simplification results in bad policy making. He's particularly critical of those who argue for a "boy friendly pedagogy". Like so much in life, it's not as simple as that.

Tim Oates' piece appears in a section called Context for Gender Equality. There are six more sections: Foundations, Setting the Tone, Communicating the Tone, Inclusion, Pedagogy and the Organisation of Learning and Subjects. (Under Music: "Do you have expectations, perhaps unconsciously, that boys and girls will produce different kinds of music when they compose or improvise?")

It's not the intention that readers should plough through the book cover to cover (although those who wish to do that won't find it a chore). It is well organised. Classroom teachers and heads, for example, will home in on Setting the Tone and Communicating the Tone: 15 or so schedules which between them provide food for thought and practical advice on gender issues in areas such as CPD, performance management, behaviour management, pastoral care and assemblies.

Many of these pieces will bring readers up short. Writing on school uniform, for example, Shan Scott of the DfCSF provides a logical checklist that may startle headteachers and governing bodies. "Does the uniform encourage boys and girls to act in ways appropriate to their age?" It's an excellent question that's good for a PTA debate.

This book may also be something for gender-aware teachers to brandish at leader*

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