Keep sex out of it

11th March 2005 at 00:00
I notice that recent guidance from Whitehall is urging all teachers to challenge homophobia, even expressed in its most subtle form as sexism. It makes the point that if we accept the use of derogatory statements such as "bunch of girls", gender labels become a form of verbal abuse that sow the seeds of homophobia. The question is, can teachers take this measure into all areas of school life?

Schools now take the issue of racial, cultural and religious discrimination seriously, and when it comes to appointments and classifieds, full attention is paid to equal opportunities. What is still prevalent though, is the language of sexism that seems to make it OK to divide the school population into two and generalise, nearly always to the detriment of boys.

It comes in many forms. You will hear reps and trainers talking of their product or strategy. "It's really good. Even for Year 6 boys."

They're all the same, are they? Or a teacher will be venting in the staffroom: "I'm having a hard time with my class. The girls are OK, but the boys are a nightmare." What? Every one? I always get the same reply: "Well, so-and-so is OK." Then don't group him with the others.

Whenever behaviour, attainment, attitude or even handwriting is associated generally with that of "boys", it's in the negative. Replace the word "boys" in any of the above statements with a racial or religious term and see how the statement becomes unacceptable.

It is also prevalent when talking about male carers. I worked in a school where, when children of functional families were ill, the secretary would try the mother at work, the grandparents and the next-door neighbour before finally ringing the father's contact number.

Sexism is a prejudice that still seems acceptable in schools. While training to deal with difficult parents, one suggested course of action was to send for a male colleague. Why? How does my gender make it more appropriate to get a smack in the mouth? Surely skills, seniority, experience, even size should be a consideration.

I'm uneasy when policy or practice decisions are made based on gender issues alone, be that of the teachers or the pupils. Despite what the media would portray, men and boys are not all the same.

If we allow generalisations to go unchallenged, they fuse together, forming attitudes. If we are, albeit unintentionally, communicating these covert prejudices to our pupils, we will never be in a position successfully to challenge the overt prejudices that seem so undesirable in them.

The writer teaches at Dovelands primary school, Leicester

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