Let's dig out the roots of sexist stereotypes

13th December 2002 at 00:00
The secret gardens of differing expectations still threaten to prune back pupils' life choices, writes Rachel Howard

Our headteacher recently went to a day conference on boys' underachievement, and came back full of enthusiasm and waving the raising-standards banner. He proceeded to number-crunch all the SATs and other assessment data so he could alert the staff to the seriousness of the problem.

The problem turned out to be rather different. It was the girls whose achievements lagged behind. Why? Goodness knows. Perhaps it's because our area has many families in which the girls are literally left holding the baby and no one considers their education important. Perhaps the sample is too small. But it did illustrate the folly of encouraging all schools to go hell-for-leather after a policy based on so little analysis. And it left our head bemused: raising girls' achievement is not exactly politically correct these days.

It's not as if girls' "superior" performance means they are going to end up hogging the top jobs as David Bell, the chief inspector, recently pointed out. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to show that bosses get away with paying less to women, even when they are doing the same jobs as men - in the media, in universities, you name it.

Even those who think they behave fairly can find they don't, and (have you noticed), many among the media still refer to "headmasters" when they mean "headteachers". My spellcheck does not even recognise "headteacher" as a proper word.

The approach to equal opportunities was rather different when I started teaching. We were exhorted to look critically at our classrooms, see what happened and work out how we could affect the dynamics to promote equal access to whatever was on offer, whether it was the curriculum or space in the playground.

In my then fashionably "family grouped" infant classroom, the boys automatically hogged the big wooden construction bricks. I instituted girls-only sessions. The girls loved them, but a stream of boys tried to persuade me the girls were committing some heinous crimes for which I should ban them from the activity. The bricks were the boys' secret garden of course.

About the same time, a friend of mine met some boys from the local boys' comp on the train. As there was a proposal at the time that it amalgamate with the nearby girls' school, she asked the lads what they thought of the plan. They were all for it. Why? It meant they would be able to do cookery. So much for their school having a motor vehicle workshop and two rooms with a computer (yes, one computer filling two rooms). They had no facilities for cookery. The girls' secret garden, of course.

At least the national curriculum is a curriculum in common. There is no longer any justification for excluding pupils from certain activities on the basis of their sex. Which is why I have a ghastly sinking feeling about the idea of encouraging kids to make choices about their futures at an ever earlier age in the name of vocational education. We know what that will mean. We only have to look at what happens in modern apprenticeships to see that secret gardens are alive and well. In so many places we have not even started to dig them up and cultivate them for the benefit of all.

So it's high time we got away from the football match approach of girls v boys. Let's think about individuals. There are plenty of boys who do well, plenty of girls who do well, and plenty of both who do not achieve well for all sorts of reasons. They need help, not slogans.

Let's have a more intelligent approach to maximising potential - not one that encourages the playing out of stereotypes. Let's stop wasting all those talented individuals who are discouraged from following the career for which they are suited because of ideas that it is not right for their sex. No more secret gardens.

Rachel Howard is a retired primary head and school governor. She writes under a pseudonym

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