Equal opportunities strategies relating to gender have largely fallen off the educational agenda in recent years, unless they relate specifically to improving boys' achievement. Despite the recent educational success of girls and women's increased representation in the workplace, gender continues to influence our behaviour, choices and life outcomes. Gender roles in the family remain largely unchanged and the most powerful jobs continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by men. Within education, a 'hidden curriculum' helps to perpetuate gender difference. It remains imperative, therefore, that effective equal opportunities strategies for improving and equalising girls' and boys' educational experiences and opportunities be identified and pursued. Our focus is on the reduction of gender-stereotypical constructions among pupils. Such constructions impact on learning experience and outcome, often with detrimental effects. It is for this reason that appropriate intervention in the primary school classroom is seen as an aid to equality of opportunity.
Aims of review and review questions
The aims of the Gender and Education Review Group are as follows:
- To identify studies of equal opportunity interventions relating to gender in the primary education sector (compulsory schooling for 5-11 year olds)
- To conduct in-depth analysis of a more tightly-defined set of studies to address the question of the impact of an implementation of particular equal opportunities strategies relating to girls in UK primary school classrooms
- To make recommendations for practice, policy and future research.
This topic will be of interest to schools; both for individual teachers who are concerned with ensuring that all pupils have access to educational opportunities, and also at a whole school level, because equal opportunities are examined during inspections by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). Similarly, parents, pupils and policy-makers have interests in ensuring that pupils are provided with equal educational opportunities, irrespective of such characteristics as gender, ethnicity, religion and social class.
The review questions are as follows:
- What strategies delivered by teachers or researchers in the classroom (in publications between 1990 and 2001) reduce stereotypical gender constructions among girls and boys in mixed-sex UK primary schools?
- What are the practicalities involved in implementing strategies for reducing stereotypical gender constructions among UK primary school children?
The Gender and Education Review Group brought together academics, two headteachers and a key representative of the Equal Opportunities Commission to guide this systematic review. Many of the Group members were also parents of school children.
We systematically sought studies relevant to the two review questions from a wide range of bibliographic databases and from researchers with an interest in this area. We set clear criteria for excluding studies outside our interests so that we could identify UK studies of equal opportunities strategies implemented in the classrooms of mixed-sex primary schools. From this list, we focused in depth on studies of the impact or implementation of interventions aiming to influence the representation of gender stereotyping. We examined these studies for descriptions of the interventions, the children and the schools where they were implemented, and the methods, quality and findings of the study.
We found 72 reports of studies addressing equal opportunities in UK primary school classrooms. They were mainly published in the 1980s. Only nine of these studies evaluated strategies to reduce stereotypical presentations of gender and reported outcomes.
The studies included in our final review are of varying depth, ranging from carefully prepared and detailed research with rich illustrations and extensive analysis, to simple descriptions of the implementation of classroom-based strategies. Most of those included in our final review were small classroom studies set within the school curriculum, sometimes by teacher researchers as part of their professional practice.
The interventions attempted to change pupils' views, behaviour and/or experience, and the research aimed to provide fellow practitioners and academics with an account of these processes. The interventions were often described in far more detail than the methods employed to investigate them.
In terms of findings, within school single-sex settings seem to be effective in reducing stereotypical gender constructions when the aim is to:
- increase the self-confidence of girls and/or encourage their experimentation with non-gender-traditional activities; or
- provide a setting for boys to tackle aspects of traditional forms of masculine attitudes and behaviours.
Mixed groups may be more effective in:
- encouraging cross-gender friendships
- reducing stereotypical curriculum preferences, particularly with younger children
- tackling stereotypical attitudes and behaviours (through discussion and awareness of the perspectives of the opposite sex).
Findings highlight the importance of a committed and long-term approach on the part of intervention providers and the benefit of gaining support from the institution as a whole, including powerful figures such as the headteacher and other teachers. Adequate resourcing appears essential for the success of the interventions. Some researchers also pointed to the necessity of consideration of factors other than gender, such as social class, ethnicity and school location, which may have greater impact on educational achievement than gender.
Little attention is currently paid to equal opportunities and gender. Small classroom studies suggest strategies for reducing stereotyping, factors favouring these strategies and difficulties to be overcome. As gaps in reporting some study methods may reflect limitations in how the research was conducted, the findings must be considered tentative. This review has suggested that strategies to reduce stereotypical presentations of gender in the primary school can have beneficial results, and outlines the nature of these. It has also highlighted a need for further research in the area, and for researchers to consider their reporting of research methods when addressing research gaps in this important area.
This report should be cited as Francis B, Skelton C, Archer L (2002). A systematic review of classroom strategies for reducing stereotypical gender constructions among girls and boys in mixed-sex UK primary schools. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London