Sexes and sensibility

31st May 1996 at 01:00
GENDER MATTERS IN SCHOOLS: PUPILS AND TEACHERS By John Darling and Anthony Glendinning Cassell Pounds 40 and Pounds 11.99.

The most valuable part of this book is at the end, where the authors present recent evidence and commentary on the examination attainments and subject choices of boys and girls. They demonstrate the changing gendered pattern of secondary school examination performance and make succinct comparisons.

The discussion of subject choice draws on their study of seven schools in Grampian. It identifies three clear curricular tracks related to gender and assessments of ability in science: male academic (physics andor chemistry) female academic (biology andor chemistry) and non-academic (general science). This is a fascinating insight into the dynamics of the national curriculum, perceptions of local labour markets and class and gender subcultures, challenging the conventional wisdom that parents present a barrier to non-stereotypical subject choices.

One of the most intransigent problems facing equal opportunities policy-makers in schools is the continuing wide disparity between men and women in their chances of promotion to senior posts. Darling and Glendinning's examination of the most recent evidence paints a depressingly familiar picture of men having four or five times greater chance of promotion to a headship than women. Their research also shows that when women are appointed this is more often to smaller schools, with consequent salary implications.

They consider some recent research carried out in Strathclyde, showing that women apply for promotion less often than men. Those who do apply have a better chance of being shortlisted and appointed than men. Their highly critical consideration of the notion that encouraging more women to apply is the solution leads them to the view that head teachers are seen as authority figures responsible for the control of young people's behaviour and that as such they are "necessarily seen as male". The problem is to change conceptions of power and authority. Disappointingly, they take the discussion no further.

The conceptual framework for the book is the long history of women's rights from Mary Wollstonecraft to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975. In a book of only 128 pages this history is spelled out in some detail.

The view assumes that gender is about girls and women; the world is structured by rigid stereotypes and the conclusion is plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose. The richness and variety of feminist analyses have passed these authors by.

Equally serious is their failure to take on board the work on masculinities associated with such scholars as Bob Connell and Mairtin mac an Ghaill. Focusing on the dilemmas and ambiguities for pupils and teachers constructing gendered identities within rapidly changing fragmented structures would have made more sense of the very important data presented here.

Christine Heward is senior lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of Warwick

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