Still a tough job to reach the top

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Why are there so few women heads, even in Europe's most progressive countries? Hilary Povey and John Coldron report on research into the reasons and remedies

To associate the word "career" solely with promotion in a male hierarchy is to miss a crucial aspect of women's experience as teachers. Some women's main career objective is continually to improve their ability to do a good job in the classroom. They would rather remain teachers than move into "management", finding the role of headteacher, as currently conceived, uncongenial.

This is fair enough. But many women who seek the influence that comes with the top job continue to be denied it. Whether in "progressive" Denmark, pro-active Holland or ideologically hostile England, few women occupy senior positions.

This was the starting point for a three-year project, Women's Careers in Teaching, funded by the European Commission. Three teams - from Blaagaard Seminarium, a state college of education in Copenhagen; Hogeschool Rotterdam, a department of the University of Rotterdam; and Sheffield Hallam University - set out to discover why women are under-represented and what can be done about it.

The international perspective is instructive. The Danish system is deeply democratic and non-elitist, ensuring teachers, parents and pupils take an active role in developing the curriculum and managing schools. Excellent childcare allows parents of both sexes to carry on working, and effective paternity arrangements ensure men can remain involved with their families.

In contrast to the UK experience of the past 20 years, the Danish government strongly supports equality of opportunity. But Danish women have had to struggle as hard as their English sisters to achieve equal pay and status. Even today, women make up 60 per cent of the workforce in schools but hold only 16 per cent of the most senior posts. And male teachers' average earnings are higher.

The Dutch system shows a similar pattern. Radical action has been taken that would not be countenanced in the UK. For example, a spate of school amalgamations between 1992 and 1996 threatened (from previous experience) to cut the number of women in the top jobs. One government response was to give secondary schools extra cash if they appointed a woman head.

Although the amount was relatively small (about Pounds 7,000) and it had to be spent on the teacher's professional development, it showed a real commitment. But the scheme was not universally welcomed - even by women. Some felt insulted by what they saw as a bribe.

The Dutch government also made school boards accountable for ensuring women were properly represented in their management teams, and ministerial backing for affirmative action continues. Despite this, although 76 per cent of teachers are women only 13 per cent are in headships.

This apparent similarity suggests a weak link between what governments do and say, and what happens on the ground. It points to deep social and structural problems that are extremely difficult to overcome. There are no alternatives to local, regional and national struggles to improve matters. Many people would like to raise the profile of this issue in their schools. The Women's Careers in Teaching team developed courses and materials to support teacher-educators, headteachers or equal opportunity officers in doing just that.

On the principle that to be forewarned is to be forearmed, the Sheffield team worked with new teachers on resources for life-planning. These included facts and figures, historical perspectives and ways of reflecting on the pattern of our lives.

Work with teachers enabled the team to provide practical guidelines about applications and interviews, and group processes for mutual support.

Something must be done to correct this imbalance - and not only because the treatment of women teachers must improve. As long as the situation remains unchanged, children will be shown that men decide and women follow. That must not continue.

Hilary Povey and John Coldron are lecturers at Sheffield Hallam University. They edited 'Women's Careers in Teaching: A Practical Guide', available from SHU Press, Learning Centre, Sheffield Hallam University, price Pounds 9. 95

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