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Who says boys will be boys and girls will be girls?

An early years worker's sex can determine what boys and girls learn in the nation's nurseries and pre-schools, say researchers.

Nursery workers in 40 education authorities told Worcester College of Higher Education researchers Dr Tony Bertram and Professor Christine Pascal that language, literacy, and social and emotional development dominated the curriculum. But when tasks were examined it was found there were often other ways of describing them.

Dr Bertram says: "For example, a child is given several pairs of shoes to play with. The interventions of the adult may well be enriching and involving but tend to focus on such matters as setting up a shoe shop for role-play or pretending to be the owner of the shoes, putting them on, playing in them and developing imaginative stories and empathy.

"The shoes are less likely to be seen, for example, as a potential mathematical experience, with pairing, serialisation, matching or ordering articulated and encouraged by the teacher. Teaching about science and the material or purpose of the shoes is also less likely.

"It is not that the resource is not used but that the adult directs the child to use it in a particular way and that this choice might be related to the gender or conditioning of the adult.

"Perhaps male early years workers, equally conditioned by their gender, may be more likely to see these alternative possibilities and open them up for all the children."

Dr Bertram, co-director of Worcester's Centre for Research in Early Childhood, and a widower who has raised three children, says male early years educators have other, valuable gender-specific qualities. "There is evidence, for example, that males are more tolerant of boys' robust play and more sophisticated in discriminating between real and pretend fighting. Men identify the 'play face' boys display when they are involved in cubbish, playground tussles. Female authority is usually intolerant of this natural male activity and finds it difficult to distinguish between rough-house fun and genuine violence.

"'We was only playin', Miss' is a common playground plea of the misundertood - almost as common as the primary staffroom lament: 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if they were all girls?'"

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