Schools need to close the gender performance gap with clever strategies, writes Susan Lewis
Working to remove barriers in education and training is not easy when gender stereotypes have been so entrenched in our history, culture and society.
The Chancellor, Gordon Brown brought the "gender gap" into sharper focus in last week's Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture when he said underachievement among boys has become a particularly acute problem. He warned of wasted lives. We have long recognised that we can track the problems of gender inequality back to the start of children's education in the pre-school years.
The fact that girls' results have improved so much over the past years is obviously good news. However, continuing underperformance of boys, by comparison, is a cause for concern.
The gender gap - the difference in results between girls and boys - often masks underlying problems of stereotyping and inequality. Overall, girls now do much better than boys from the age of seven, and the gap between boys and girls in their ability to use language starts from the earliest age.
As pupils grow older, the gap gets wider. This is worrying because language is crucial for doing well in most subjects and essential to healthy social and emotional development. Increasingly schools are having to provide extra support to improve boys' language skills.
Problems with school work can start some boys on a downward spiral of underachievement and disengagement. Boys are more likely than girls to miss school without good reason, to be excluded or to get into trouble and break the law. Boys account for 80 per cent of permanent exclusions.
Schools must continue to explore the reasons why boys do not do as well as girls and find strategies that will reduce the performance gap. Clearly, age-old stereotypical views of the curriculum need to be challenged. If we are to make progress in terms of gender equality, we need to begin challenging stereotypes early on.
Nursery and infant schools promote gender equality in the toys, games and dressing-up clothes children use in their play. They weigh up the images and stereotypes presented to young children in the stories they hear and read and the television they watch, and try to balance this effect in the curriculum they offer.
Teachers challenge the unspoken cultural assumptions that are obstacles to equality of opportunity. For instance, in many schools, teachers encourage both boys and girls to take part in a wider range of sports that in the past have been more associated with one gender than the other, such as football, rugby and netball.
There are good examples of secondary schools which promote equal opportunities in all year groups across all subjects. However, I have noted in my last Annual Report that, in some schools, there is a degree of gender stereotypical choices in the subjects young people choose at 14 and 16 that may be bound up in the image of the subjects themselves, and may be linked with preferred learning styles common in those subjects.
Teachers and trainers are working hard, and with some success, to confront inequalities. Some ground-breaking work goes on across all ages in schools, colleges and training centres.
Some schools succeed more than others in making foreign languages more attractive to boys. They use competitive games in class to stimulate interest and to increase the emphasis on short-term rewards.
They offer access to computers and exciting new software. They provide resource materials which feature male role models who speak other languages.
Teachers can play a key role in encouraging pupils to consider taking up non-traditional subjects, including vocational choices across the whole cohort.
For example, in some secondaries boys and girls are enlisting on engineering courses. Many careers teachers encourage young people not to be influenced by factors such as gender stereotyping when choosing a career by challenging assumptions in careers education discussions.
In one outstanding work-based learning provider, training of high quality in meat processing and food preparation is provided by a company which employs a clear policy to market courses to males and females equally.
The company's marketing and publicity materials, and the guidance they give, challenge stereotypes and traditional gender choices. This has encouraged females to take up training in non-traditional areas like butchery.
Learners of both genders choose to train in the food and hospitality industry and 77 per cent of those in management training are female.
Education and training providers need to continue to support employers to overcome deep-rooted inequality of opportunity in the economy of Wales.
Schools can do, and are doing, much to encourage and promote this, thereby helping pupils to overcome gender barriers.
Susan Lewis is chief inspector for education and training in Wales Join the debate Write to TES Cymru, Sophia House, 28 Cathedral Road, Cardiff CF11 9LJ.
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